A detailed look into what drives American students to be interested in international and ancient history.

Picture by Kyle Glenn which depicts the wider world we live in.
The wide world we live in.
Photo by Kyle Glenn

According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), history degrees were the third most popular bachelor’s degrees for graduating students. But, as a former student of history, it is striking how few history students are interested in their own nation’s history. This is not necessarily a bad thing. The whole world is rich with stories. This article is looking at why people are interested in places and periods outside their personal heritage.

Reasoning From History Students

The student of history can create a broad and developed knowledge base
The student of history can create a broad and developed knowledge base
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

When asked why they study the topics that they do, most history students’ answers are not profound. For the most part, many say they study their chosen period and place in history mainly because it interests them.

“I just find [Roman History] so much more interesting than other fields I could study. So much of what they built influences us still today and so much of their architecture still stands today.”

(Anonymous) Illinois State University history major when asked why she chose to focus on what she did.

History is typically a major that does not lead to a specific career, though it is a viable background for many fields such as journalism and research. Interest and drive are all a person needs to study history, so they tend to gravitate towards topics purely out of interest. While it is difficult to track the specific focus of people’s majors, as they are not widely published, interviews with history students do reveal preferences for ancient and distant history.

Many people who study history are capable of speaking to some degree on a wide variety of topics. This is even truer for people studying to teach history which is the most common career path for history students. History students want to understand a diverse range of historical topics as possible. Or they want to study as many foreign topics as possible to round out their knowledge of the world.

Overlap in American History

American history is often the crossroads of European history and rich historical overlap
American history is often the crossroads of European history and rich historical overlap
Photo by slon_dot_pics from Pexels

The United States, founded by Great Britain as a trading port for tobacco and, overlaps with many other countries historically. Great Brittain, because of this overlap, for example, had a stake in the New World alongside France, Spain, and other colonial powers of the era. Understanding American history means understanding the empires that profited off of it. In studying Britain’s roll in settling America, one would learn about the Protestant Reformation.

History is more connected than people realize. Studying the history of one place or time period may be led to study another for context. Also, many topics are related to American history indirectly. Such as studying the Roman Republic as due to the neo-roman design of many of our capital buildings.

Growing a cultural perspective from understanding ancient history is a critical part of learning more recent history. Context is key. American students often find that tracing back through the history of their own country requires researching other areas of focus in order to gather a complete picture.

Exoticism

Picture by Dario Veronesi depicting the Colosseum, a poster child for the ancient world.
The Roman Colosseum, one of the most recognizable images of the past.
Photo by Dario Veronesi

Another perspective on why students often choose to study foreign history comes from history itself. During the Victorian Era, items from lands conquered by the British empire became prized artifacts. A wealthy British household may have a jade lion statue from China next to a statuette of the Buddha. Little effort went into understanding the context of the items on the part of the people collecting them. In fact, Victorians are notorious for misrepresenting history to make their own era seem superior. The draw of owning these items related to an interest in far-off and exotic lands, hence the term “exoticism”.

The term “Exoticism” refers to “the perception or description of difference or ‘otherness'” as it relates to culture. It is often viewed as “reductive” in nature. At the time, exoticism related to Western European people discussing places like Africa and Asia in relation to themselves. It is still observed, in a broader, sense today. This is not to say that all history students who choose to study Asian, African, or South American history are guilty of exoticism, but it is worth considering how similar an inclination the interest of one is to the other.

Different modern sensibilities apply to our own ancestral histories. The world view of a fifteenth-century English knight would be so different from our own today that it would seem alien. Despite the fact that the term applies to literature, many of the same descriptive tendencies are on display in history books across all topics of history. The difference now is that the “geographic remoteness to Europe” discussed by the British Library is now the “chronological remoteness” of bygone eras. A history student in the United States would be aware that their own country is not even 250 years old yet, that is roughly a quarter of the time most other countries in Europe and Asia have been sovereign states.

Conclusions

What we learn in time is relative to how deeply we quest
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

There is little direct research on this topic, and why we study one specific culture over another is an obscure enough question that it is unlikely any formal research will be done any time soon. But given the accounts of people currently studying history, some guesses can be made. Perhaps, a certain degree of modern exoticism is at play.

It is difficult to study one place or period of history in a vacuum. Considering the other places that left their mark in a time or place are important to develop a full understanding or create new theories about history. History can be seen as past events or opportunities for modern understanding.

The study of history is important, regardless of the area of interest. Knowing where you have been can sometimes help you see where you might go. Modernity can always be accented with ideas from the past. Hope for the future can drive a deeper study of our past and the march of time can either drive you into a line or teach you what pattern to interrupt.


I would love to hear your thoughts below. Be sure to comment and let me know what your theories are. Have you been fascinated with a part of history too?