A History Major’s Defense: Using the Past to Inform the Future

Map of the world

My senior year history teacher inspired me to study history and politics in college.

He taught me why studying history is something to be admired, and he taught me life lessons through his occasional bouts of world-domination advice.

He instilled in me the notion that it’s incredibly important to observe what’s going on around you, and that the value of being able to learn from mistakes is vital to being a better person every day.

After all, if you make a mistake once, it’s a mistake, but if you make a mistake twice, it’s stupid. So when people ask me what I’m going to do with a history degree, this is what I tell them:

If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s invade Russia in the winter. Several have tried, and all have failed. The Mongols, Napoleon, and Hitler all got shut down, and trust me—if Hitler did something, it isn’t exactly a great idea to emulate it.

You will eventually succumb to the cold, to disease, or to the steamroller that is the Russian army before you reach Moscow.

Sometimes, it is best to listen to those around you and to observe what has happened before.

In your anger, or sadness, or hubris, it is easy to forget that your friends often know what’s best for you. Before you take the head-on plunge into shark-infested waters or Russian-fueled winters, listen to your best friend, your mom, and then talk to your dog. If they all tell you to take a step back, you probably should.

In 1788, the Austrian army attacked itself and lost 10,000 men. Sometimes you are your own worst enemy.

As is the case with invading Russia in winter, you can’t win if you beat yourself. A big first step in succeeding is not shooting yourself in the foot. Have confidence, read your books, eat your vegetables, brush your teeth, and sleep a little. Take the steps to prevent yourself from failing, and you’re already halfway there.

Those who don’t care about history are the ones who are doomed to repeat it.

Plus, I love winning a spirited argument, and knowing the ins and outs of what I’m talking about gives me an inherent advantage.

In reality, I’ve found that the entire histories of certain places are not dissimilar to the daily life of a college student.

Don’t dive into every club that sends you an email, because you may just be wasting your time and burning yourself out. Don’t shoot yourself in the foot—don’t stay up until 3 a.m. watching The Office instead of getting some shut eye.

If there’s one thing you should never do, it’s take an open-top car tour. Pope John Paul II, John F. Kennedy, and Franz Ferdinand would all attest: it’s a bad idea.

Flaunting yourself and taking pride in trivial accomplishments is a one-way ticket to getting not only disliked, but possibly murdered. Sometimes it’s best to just swallow your pride and take a seat in the back row.

A lack of humility sets you up for the disappointment of your peers at best, and a bullet in your head at worst. Recognition for accomplishments worthy of recognition will come without you asking for it, and that’s how you can know it’s well deserved.

Catherine the Great was one of the greatest leaders to ever grace the Eastern Hemisphere. She greatly expanded the Russian Empire, westernized all of Russia, won several wars against the Ottoman Empire, and launched massive educational reform.

Most people remember her because she was killed having sex with a horse. Sometimes, despite your every accomplishment and noble deed, you will only be remembered by how you go out.

Don’t burn bridges, because they won’t get rebuilt after you are gone. Don’t soil relationships, and always make sure to thank the people that deserve it.

Take it from a book nerd that you will inevitably end up making more money than: history is important. Yes, you will have a nice suit and a desk in Manhattan and a Porsche and a trophy wife, but if no one respects who you are and what you have done, it really isn’t worth anything.

Take a step back and ensure that you aren’t making stupid mistakes that will get you killed in painful and humiliating ways later.

Don’t invade Russia in winter, don’t attack your own army, don’t take an open-top car tour, and go out with a bang—just not like Catherine did.

Featured Image by Abby Paulson / Heights Editor

About DJ Recny 34 Articles
DJ is the Managing Editor of The Heights, and is a Political Science and History double major from Chapel Hill, North Carolina. When not on duty as The Heights Mom, he is an American record holding powerlifter, and eats borderline disgusting amounts of chocolate ice cream.