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The historian’s superpower
To see through other eyes
History enrollments are declining at colleges and universities around the country. At least since the financial crisis of 2007-8, students and their parents have been anxious to ensure that the young people graduate from college with practical skills that can increase their chances of employment. The technical disciplines have been the beneficiaries of this trend, history and the other humanities the sufferers. The numbers of history majors are down, departments have closed or been folded into other departments, and faculty lines have been eliminated.
We historians are partly to blame. We’ve allowed ourselves to get drawn into political wars that are tangential to what we do. At research-oriented universities, decisions on hiring and course offerings have too often reflected the specialized demands of the historical guild rather than a desire to make history appealing to non-specialists. For those of us who teach at public universities, we’ve tended to treat political oversight as sabotage rather than a reasonable exercise of democratic accountability.
Perhaps worst of all, we've failed to make clear what it is we do best. The basic objective of the historian is to see the world through the eyes of the subjects of that historian's research. Those subjects can be princes or paupers, saints or sinners, masters or slaves, men or women, parents or children, the famous or the nameless— in short, anyone under the sun. We read old letters and dusty diaries, marriage licenses and death certificates, ships' manifests and bills of lading, newspapers and debates in parliaments, and anything else that will put us inside the heads of the people who came before us.
Our working assumption is, or should be, that our subjects' worlds made sense to them. If their actions and decisions are puzzling to us, we reckon that the problem is not with them but with us. We’re not seeing something they saw. And so we keep digging. If their values don't align with ours, we try to figure out what produced those values. We don't take the lazily egotistical path of writing them off as evil or immoral. No society or generation has a monopoly on rectitude.
If we practice this approach in our own work, and if we model it for our students, we encourage the development of the most useful and practical skill any person can have: the ability to see the world through someone else's eyes.
In no realm of human endeavor is this skill not essential to success. In friendships and other personal relationships it can come naturally. But everything improves with practice, and the better we imagine what our friends and partners need and want, the better those friendships and relationships will be.
In business negotiations, each party tries to figure out what the other side is looking for. Which of the issues on the table are superficial and which are deal breakers? Often the parties try to avoid tipping their hands, to gain or maintain an edge. But if one side can see the world through the eyes of the other, the hand doesn’t have to be tipped for the edge to be gained.
National intelligence agencies go to great lengths to figure out what foreign decisionmakers are thinking. Does Vladimir Putin believe his position and perhaps his life depend on winning his war against Ukraine? Does Xi Jinping think time is on China’s side in its dispute with Taiwan, and therefore he need be in no hurry to press the matter? Or does he think time is running out and it’s now or never for unification? Millions of lives hang on the answers to these and similar questions.
Putting yourself in other people’s shoes won’t guarantee you never misstep. Getting inside the head of Napoleon or Hitler won’t put you inside Putin’s or Xi’s. John Rockefeller’s thinking isn’t a certain guide to Elon Musk’s. People are unique and times change.
But students of human behavior who focus on learning how other people think will encounter fewer surprises than those who don’t. The study of history converts the future from an essay test, where the taker confronts a blank page, to a multiple-choice test, where the future is likely to come from a relatively small set of alternatives. There are no laws of history, in the mathematical or natural-science sense, but there are patterns.
Reading, writing, thinking, speaking: these are skills that can be taught in school and that contribute to success in life. They are observable and more or less quantifiable, and so they readily translate from transcript to resume. These skills are developed in disciplines across colleges and universities.
Beyond these skills lies another, one more subtle but even more essential in positions of decision-making responsibility. This is insight, which informs sound decisions. And insight, as the word conveys, is the ability to see into the crucial aspects of a problem—not least into the minds of the people involved.
Insight is the stock-in-trade of historians. None do better at cultivating it in students. We historians should do better at pointing this out to the stakeholders in the future of education, a group that in a republic includes everyone.