A look down the path of a history major

When entering college, more and more students every year enter “undecided” for a major. Students want to find a department with material they are passionate about and can invest their energy into. College also allows students to open their mind to new perspectives and to question what they know. 

One of these questions is a phrase we’ve all heard—“those who do not learn from the past are doomed to repeat it”—but how do we apply that to our perspective in current times? While it may seem redundant, history professor Philip Slaby said that the phrase is still as prevalent as ever and that it has become clear that we are not learning. 

“In recent years we’ve made some very alarming mistakes… in recent years we’ve seen that there are all sorts of lessons from the past that we simply have not paid attention to” said Slaby. 

A Brandeis University graduate and historian of mid-20th century Europe (between the world wars), Slaby is one of Guilford’s finest instructors and was gracious enough to speak with me about the history major pathway available to students at Guilford.

When looking at the online college catalogue, students will find that the history major requires a minimum of 32 credit hours, or eight courses. History majors have the option to choose an area of historical specialization, but they must take at least one course involving history from the United States, Europe and non-Western (e.g., Asia, Africa or Latin America).

Though all students will have to take a history course in order to graduate, some are more enthusiastic than others. We all took high school history courses, so how do college courses differ? Slaby explained that college history courses are a lot more concentrated and detail-oriented. At the college level, students have more choice as to what part of history they study. 

History courses also help develop strong writing skills; this comes from having to write about the impact of historical events and having to structure a paper around core reasoning, which are both valuable skills to have regardless of your career path.

History major Benjamin King added that history courses also help students gain more perspective on our world.

“Every single professor in this major will make you think about the world in a multifaceted way,” said King. “I think this really embodies what a liberal arts education ought to be. The professors want the students to see that the world is complicated, that there is rarely a single simple answer to why something occurred. They want to show the students that even in the complexity there are still definable trends. You’ll read feminist, Marxist, liberalist and many other interpretations on events—in this way, I think the major helps build perspective.”

Speaking of career paths, what doors in the career world can a degree in history open for a student? Slaby said that “the path to the workforce is more linear than most people realize.” History major Benjamin Keen said that after graduation, he hopes to take the skills that he has earned in the department to law school. 

“Although that may sound strange to some, history undergrad to law school is apparently a relatively common path,” said Keen. “At first, this puzzled me, but then a lightbulb came on. It’s a very similar skill set. It’s about researching, constructing a logical argument, arguing on the basis of past precedent and trying to predict what the other side will throw at you so you can counter. In this way, I feel like the department has prepared me well for the rigors.”

Whether you’re always buried in books about famous events or just catch the occasional Netflix documentary, developing a broader perspective of our world is valuable in any field. The history department can help students achieve that.