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Opinion | Pursuing interests: history as path to past and future

By Clayton Collier-Cartaino
On March 12, 2012

Let me begin by making it clear that I am not a history major. I am a history minor, but that was sort of an accident; I'm a mathematics major who intends to pursue a PhD and career in math, and I ended up as a history minor when I realized that in pursuing a hobby, I had come to be only one class short of a minor, which I then took.

That is to say, I have made a study of history with nothing but a personal interest in the past in mind and without any intention of gaining anything of any material value from it.

And yet looking back as I prepare to graduate, I think in terms of both understanding the world and of what would be most useful in seeking a career. If I were not pursuing further education, then I would say the most valuable lesson during my college career was learned unintentionally through my study of the ancient world.

Math has taught me countless interesting theorems and refined my abilities as a problem solver, but something even more striking came through my interest in history.

When we think about the world around us, or something we've read, or evaluate an idea, there is an unconscious but entirely real set of criteria we apply to it almost instinctively.

As the wise professor I've studied history with these last two years is fond of saying, this is the "furniture of our universe." Certain ideas of propriety, intrinsic value, or even definitions of what something like "religion" means are all parts of this invisible "furniture," and these things very much shape our reactions to the world.

But when you make a study of the past, of a time so ancient that one might almost think it another world entirely, you must become aware of the "furniture of your universe" if you intend to do more than make blind and uninformed judgments about things that you cannot understand from your present perspective. Even if you don't intend to radically rearrange this conceptual furniture, as it were, simply being aware that it exists and that it is shaping your perceptions and that it is not the same as that of someone else's universe allows you to study something much more fairly.

Looking back, I never realized at the outset that I was learning to do this, even when the professor pounded the point home at the beginning of every course. I also was not aware of just what this ability meant until somewhat recently.

I can identify the approximate point at which I really began to be able to do it well, probably the same point in time when I stopped hating the Romans for doing things that from my own prior ill-informed viewpoint, I had considered stupid or cruel or otherwise unfavorable. But it took dealing with others who could not overcome the constraints of their own beliefs to enable me to understand what this learning strategy really meant.

Recently in another course, I was in another situation in which moving beyond my own context to deal with material on its own terms was required, and I found those around me lacked that ability. I found myself frustrated that, instead of thinking about what was different about what we were reading and why it was different from what they would've found enjoyable, they insisted upon judging it by their criteria as though that was the only way to judge it.

Now that in itself might not impress you after all, says the business advocate or engineering elitist, what does it really matter if they couldn't look past their own context in a classroom? But the answer is that it matters in everything you do that involves other people. Even in the same nation, the same state, the same school, the furniture of two given individuals' universes is not the same. When someone is not prepared to deal with that by stepping outside his or her own context and considering the situation from another perspective, the only result can be intolerance.

I don't have to enumerate the obvious effects of intolerance in society, because things like genocide and terrorism and hate crimes speak quite forcefully for themselves, but what is harder to see are the smaller, more insidious effects of intolerance. In our everyday lives, being intolerant of others is not only hurting them, but also us. The husband and wife who won't even try to understand each other's problems, the businessman who offends a client with the wrong joke, the company that gets sued for an advertisement with unfortunate implications: these are only a few of the many, many ways in which a little intolerance can hurt ourselves as much if not more than others.

I won't pretend that I have anything remotely close to the ability to totally avoid this problem, but what I've learned from my study of ancient history gives me an edge toward avoiding these things. Far more than any technical skill or factoid, this is the most valuable thing I have learned from my time at this university.

So when thinking about what classes to take, don't just ignore your interests and shun the things you might enjoy just because you've been told they're not "useful." You may well find, as I have, that the most valuable lessons are the ones you learn by accident.

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