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Why Study History?

utkhistory-41Because we like Big Questions

History can certainly make you more knowledgeable and interesting to talk to and can lead to all sorts of brilliant vocations, explorations, and careers – just take a look at all these former history majors, for example. But even more important, studying history helps us ask and answer humanity’s Big Questions. In fact, we faculty often tell our students that history is all about questions.

If you want to know why something is happening in the present, you might ask a sociologist, an anthropologist, an economist. But if you want deep background, you ask a historian. We are the people who know and understand the past and can explain its complex interrelationships with the present.

Our faculty approach their work – that is, their research and their teaching – in this spirit of inquiry. We want to know how things happened, why, and what it meant. Some of our Big Questions are quite specific, and indeed specificity – of time and of place – is at the heart of what we do. For example, for our historian of late antique Europe, Jacob Latham, the Big Question is: “What difference did Christianity make to the Roman world after Constantine?” Chris Magra, scholar of the early American Atlantic, asks: “To what extent were colonial Americans capitalists?”

Meanwhile, our historian of US/Mexican relations and of the US in the World, Tore Olsson, wants to know: “Why are the societies of the Global North so much wealthier today than the societies of the Global South, and what about their historical relationship has caused this?” Charles Sanft, our early China specialist, is interested in “how people in China have formed and maintained their society, and what they wrote about those processes.”

Some of our faculty pose Big Questions that are more broadly anthropological or philosophical, but such questions become historical when situated, again, in particular places and moments in time: Lynn Sacco, who writes about the history of sexuality in America, asks: “How do we reconcile the contradictions between what we observe and what we believe?”  Laura Nenzi, who works on early modern Japan, asks, “How do the big ‘textbook moments’ in History look when seen from the viewpoint of the single individual who observed them from the sidelines?” Vejas Liulevicius, who writes about Europe in the era of the World Wars, poses this question: “How have people in the past envisioned their relations with neighboring or foreign peoples?” Meanwhile, Monica Black, a historian of modern Germany asks, “Why do the dead matter to the living?,” and Denise Phillips, our historian of the life sciences, poses the mind-blowing, “Why does knowledge matter?”

History is also all about Big Answers. In fact, history could be described as a mode not only of asking but also of answering questions. Historians’ answers are never one-dimensional: in fact, for us it is often a point of pride to say that there is no single answer to any question about the past. Our goal, instead, is to seek out as many different clues about why something turned out the way it did as we are able to uncover and to offer multifaceted explanations for all kinds of historical phenomena.