The Past is Prologue

How the Study of History Prepares Us for Life
William H. Denney

William DenneySince I retired, I have begun to reflect on the journey of my life.  This isn't uncommon.  We all reach a point when we wonder what we accomplished and how we got from there to here.

In my case, the "there," the beginning, was my time at Miami.  This is how I got to "here."

I enlisted in the Air Force, which sent me to the Defense Language Institute and then to serve in Military Intelligence.  When I left the military, I worked as a manufacturing supervisor for Johnson & Johnson.  They moved me from a plant in Texas to a larger facility in New Jersey where they placed me in IT.  From there I moved to Texas Instruments as a technical trainer learning more about computers and technology.  After that I took a position as an IT director at Halliburton Corporate Headquarters where I developed an executive information system that consolidated data from seventeen subsidiaries.  I was promoted to Director of Quality, which involved multiple business improvement projects and training assignments in various countries.  I joined Microsoft where I managed follow-the-sun technical support at multiple locations.  My wife and I then took a couple years off to live on our sailboat in Florida and Key West.  During this period of reflection, I wrote a novel and published a number of articles about organizational improvement, human resources and business competiveness.  We returned to Texas where I took a job as Vice President of Quality at a local healthcare company.  Three years later I was asked to be the CEO of a local non-profit.  Over the years, I volunteered as an examiner/assessor for the National Baldrige Performance Excellence Program.  Eventually, I set out on my own and became an international business consultant.  In the course of all these experiences I've worked in Venezuela, Singapore, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Thailand, Malta, India, Dubai, England, Greece, Germany, Holland and Mongolia.

I share this reflection on my own experiences of nearly forty years because I have come to realize that all of it (all the personal evolution) was only possible because my field of study at Miami was history.  Not only did studying history enrich me, by encouraging a life-long passion for learning, an enjoyment of art, music and travel, but more importantly it did not limit me to any specific field or track for my life.  It gave me command of my own destiny.

A complete explanation of why I think the study of history prepares us for an enriched and rewarding life would fill a book.  But here I will just share a few thoughts on our civic obligations, how studying history will help you get a job, who we are as humans, and I will end with a personal thought.

We Are All Citizens of Someplace
As such, we will always face important and difficult decisions.  From the study of history, I learned that the concept of liberal versus conservative or left versus right, has been with us since the beginning of time.  Even before the popularity of these terms in the nineteenth century, I can look back to ancient Egypt, Greece, Rome, or anywhere across space and time, and see there have always been primarily two perspectives on how to create a better society.  Neither view is inherently good or bad, right or wrong.  Interestingly, psychologist Jonathan Haidt suggests that there are intrinsic human values that form the basis of our political choices.  Understanding the history and psychology of this dichotomy, and that these two viewpoints form a balance, gives us a broader perspective we can use to work together across differences to solve the problems we face in all countries.

Inextricably linked to these two worldviews is our long historical struggle with how to best implement the concept of democracy.  Ever since the fifth century B.C. when Pericles had citizens vote by putting pottery shards in baskets, we have seen democracy succeed and fail.  Plato warned that democracy could lead to tyranny, and not surprisingly some dictators have used democracy to gain power and then eliminate it.  Even the Founders of the United States struggled with the right mix of liberty and authority, finally giving us a Republic with checks and balances on the democratic process.  Making democracy work for our mutual benefit has always been a frustrating and challenging effort because of our selfish nature.  That frustration is well reflected in Winston Churchill's tongue-in-cheek remark that, "Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all the others tried."

I share these thoughts because, while history shows we are all conditioned by the society, culture and the circumstance within which we live, it also teaches that we are well served if we have an understanding about how ideas and political systems evolved over time.  This knowledge can help us protect our liberty and ensure we make better decisions as citizens.

Eventually You Need To Get A Job
I thought a recent statement from Howard Schultz, the CEO of Starbucks, was profound--"We are living in a time when the rules of engagement are different."  I've personally seen an evolution in what businesses do, how they do it and what they need from employees.

We live in a super-structured, computational, communications driven, globally connected and complicated world.  Increasingly, artificial intelligence, like IBM's Watson, will replace many complex and technical jobs.  But, whether you are in business, healthcare, education, work for a non-profit or become an entrepreneur - in a small organization or large - you will need new and perhaps unexpected job skills.

Despite the technology boom, most CEOs now realize what are sometimes called "soft skills" are what add the most important value to their companies.  In 2010, Steve Jobs said, "It's in Apple's DNA that technology alone is not enough.  It's technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities, that yields the results that make our hearts sing."  Other CEOs across the world agree that humanities and liberal arts training with their emphasis on creativity and critical thinking are vital to the success of their business.  Steve Yi, CEO of a large web advertising platform, says that these disciplines train students to thrive in subjectivity and ambiguity, a necessary skill in the tech world where few things are black and white.  "When I collaborate with people who have a strictly technical background," says Yi, "the perspective I find most lacking is an understanding of what motivates people and how to balance multiple factors that are at work outside the realm of technology."

Isn't this what the study of history instills in us?  History requires that we must demonstrate a willingness to learn, develop knowledge of other cultures, hone skills in critical thinking, and cognitive reasoning.  Study and research in history teaches us how to understand and link thoughts and events in the context of circumstances and time.  We learn to understand creativity and innovation as an evolution and linkage of ideas (a series of connections).  Research and seminar papers teach us to sharpen our analytical and communication skills, to be concise, to explain things in context.  History teaches us there can be multiple paths to finding solutions.

"The ability to quickly synthesize information and structure it in a way that is comprehensible to non-technical people is powerful," says Steve Yi.

In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, the documentary filmmaker, Ken Burns, says business leaders have shown frustration with MBA graduates.  One saying, "I can teach these people business skills, but I can't teach them ethics, history or art."

(I have underlined above the skills that CEOs and HR leaders say they are now looking for in employees.)

Knowledge and its application in almost every narrow field of study changes and evolves.  That's why I was able to have such a varied career.  As one executive said, "We can teach new hires the content, and we will have to because it continues to change, but we can't teach them how to think--to ask the right questions--and to take initiative."  That's why the skills highlighted above that the study of history provides will increasingly be useful, timely, and relevant - exactly what the new workplace needs.

When you interview for a job, these are the skills you should explain.  This is what you can do better than anyone else.  This is what sets you apart.  You have the skills that will make any organization successful.  The title of the degree is irrelevant.  What the study of history teaches you is everything.

When I started out, I expected to just find a job.  What's different now is that in our complex and constantly evolving global economy, employers will expect you to be innovation ready - ready to add value right from the start.  Even when you get a job you will eventually have to reinvent what you do.  I did it and you will too.  What you learn by studying history will help you do that.

Our Shared Humanity
I'll leave you with a final thought about the most important thing I learned from the study of history.

The Native American people known as the Lakota have a saying, "Mitakuye Oyasin."  It means, "we are all related."  This belief is held by all native peoples and all religions across our planet.  We are all brothers and sisters.  What Christians call the golden rule exists in every major religion.

The great Lakota medicine man, Black Elk, said it best.  "The first peace, which is the most important, is that which comes within the souls of people when they realize their relationship, their oneness with the universe and all its powers, and when they realize that at the center of the universe dwells the Great Spirit, and that this center is really everywhere, it is within each of us.  All things are our relatives; what we do to everything, we do to ourselves.  All is really One."

A Personal Note
No one can tell you what's the best field of study for you--not me, not your advisors, not even your parents.  Some will say if you study this or that you will always have a job.  No warranty or guarantee will be issued with your diploma.  I chose my path and you must choose yours.

Early in life I found the wisdom of Joseph Campbell -- "Follow your bliss.  If you do follow your bliss, you put yourself on a kind of track that has been there all the while waiting for you, and the life you ought to be living is the one you are living.  When you can see that, you begin to meet people who are in the field of your bliss, and they open the doors to you.  I say, follow your bliss and don't be afraid, and doors will open where you didn't know they were going to be.  If you follow your bliss, doors will open for you that wouldn't have opened for anyone else."

"To think that in such a place, I lived such a life."

With Love and Honor
William Denney, PhD
Miami '78