Why History Majors Should Study Abroad

If there is one thing every history major should do before he or she graduates, it is study abroad.  After studying abroad in England last semester, I am convinced that in addition to being enriching, fun, cultural opportunities that can be used to enhance one’s résumé, study abroad experiences offer several unique takeaways for history majors in particular:

1) Here’s the obvious reason: If one is studying in a non-English-speaking country, study abroad is a prime opportunity to brush up on the language skills that are sometimes necessary for reading primary sources.  After all, there is no better way to learn a foreign language than to be immersed in it!

2) Sometimes studying abroad means being exposed to a different educational style.  When I studied abroad in England, instead of having lectures and exams, I was required to write between one and two essays each week and verbally debate the arguments presented in those essays with a tutor.  Participating in such a unique and writing-intensive educational system where I was required to articulate original ideas instead of simply memorizing facts to regurgitate on a multiple-choice exam honed both my critical thinking and my writing skills, both of which are essential for history majors to master.

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Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts by Sam Wineburg (image from amazon.com)

3) Finally, history majors should study abroad because it involves living in a new and foreign culture.  It requires being willing to put aside one’s own culture to learn how to efficiently function in another.  It requires being aware of cultural differences and learning how to either work through or live with them.  It requires a desire to understand the mindset of the people among whom one is living.  In short, as Messiah College history major Cassy Baddorf pointed out in a recent blog post, studying abroad is a practice in empathy, both for culture and for other people.  In the words of novelist L.P. Hartley and historian David Lowenthal: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”; if one learns this discipline in real life, it will become easier to put these principles into practice when studying history.  According to Sam Wineburg, when we practice this kind of empathy, we become better historians: “For the narcissist sees the world – both the past and the present – in his own image.  Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (‘lead outward’ in the Latin) in the deepest sense.”

Go and study abroad – it will be a transformative experience!

Kathryn Kaslow is a junior history major with a concentration in public history.  She is a research assistant, student diplomat for the History Department, History Club officer, and a contributor for History on the Bridge.

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