The other day I was taking a shower and had an idea for an interesting thought experiment about self-education.
If your goal was to develop wide-ranging knowledge, but you could only read one genre, which one would you choose?
Literature, philosophy, sociology, math? Which one would give you the most range, the most easily transferable knowledge?
After a few minutes of repeatedly cupping water with my hands and letting it kerplunk to the floor, it dawned on me.
What’s the one subject that snuck its way into the reading regiment of almost every expansive thinker I admire, from Abraham Lincoln to my very own grandmother?
History! The good old study of the past.
If you’re an aspiring polymath or want to develop a generalist self-education plan, here are some reasons why you should give self-studying history some serious consideration.
History is Versatile & Treats Various Academic Subjects
When people hear that I’m reading a history book, they sometimes assume that it’s a political history, the study of political events.
But there are so many other types of histories out there. You’ve got cultural histories, economic histories, social histories, intellectual histories (histories of ideas), military histories, and even more niche subcategories of the genre.
For example, you can find books on the history of the national park system, the history of modern medicine, or the history of philosophy.
What I love most about reading history is that many of the books span multiple types of history and therefore teach you about various subjects.
For example, I’m currently reading Battle Cry of Freedom. It’s a history of the American Civil War, but it doesn’t just document the military side of things.
There’s a chapter devoted to the economic history of the United States from 1790-1850. It goes into the factors contributing to the rise of industrialization, as well as the public reactions to it (social history).
And there are sections throughout the book detailing the history of slavery, the shifting public opinions about slavery (intellectual/cultural history), and the political actions taken by individual congressmen and presidents to limit, abolish, protect, or expand the grotesque institution (political history).
I’ve learned more about what it takes to pass a law by reading this history than I have from years of reading the news.
So, the first reason to add history to any self-education plan is that it’s going to give you a fantastic bang for your buck — multiple subjects hidden within one book.
History Books Are Filled with Case Studies
Business schools around the country use the case study method to educate their students. They teach them about how real-life businesses have handled complex problems.
This prepares them to come up with strategic and creative solutions, their thinking grounded in history and aware of past mistakes, when it’s their turn to steer the entrepreneurial ship.
History books can be thought of as the ultimate case studies. They’re filled with short stories that usually involve a problem, a decision, and an outcome that’s positive or negative.
In Battle Cry of Freedom, for example, Mcpherson writes about how in the 1852 presidential election the Whig party knew it needed more votes to secure a victory.
The party’s decision was to take an anti-nativist approach to capture the vote of Irish immigrants, a group they had previously alienated by supporting Protestant public schools and the temperance movement.
To enact this strategy, the Whigs went so far as to plant Irish questioners in the audience to give their candidate a chance to say how much he “loved to hear that rich Irish brogue”.
Unfortunately, appealing to the Irish did nothing to secure Irish votes; they just voted Democrat as usual. To make matters worse, the strategy backfired and annoyed the Whig’s nativist voters just enough to make them stay home during voting day.
The lesson here seems to be, to me at least, that complimenting a voting group and promising them protection is not going to undo years of trying to change their cultural norms.
People are perceptive and can see right through flattery, and generally prioritize the protection and continuation of their culture over almost anything else, even economic relief.
From this page-long story of the 1,000-page book, I learned something important about human nature and political strategy, while also getting a bit of history about the culture of Irish American immigrants in 1850s America.
By supplying you with case studies across various subjects and situations, history offers you insight into so many aspects of life.
History is a Great Practice Ground for Critical Reading Skills
History, unlike philosophy, has a narrative drive built into it that engages your curiosity and makes you want to find out what happens next, like a novel.
But still, at its core, it’s a collection of arguments about the correct interpretation of the past — arguments about what happened, how they happened, and why they happened.
And it’s against these arguments that you’ll sharpen your critical reading skills like argument analysis and critical thinking.
When reading history, you can practice dissecting various arguments into their main components, testing each component’s validity, and assessing whether or not they support the historian’s conclusions.
And because it’s a story, and the writing tends to be straightforward, especially when compared to philosophy, you won’t tire out as quickly or become frustrated by abstract sentences or unfamiliar words.
Start Reading History
Studying history benefits readers in many ways that aren’t usually discussed. It teaches you about a variety of topics, from economics to politics to culture, it walks you through case studies of life, and it provides a wonderful training ground for your reading skills.
If you’d like to start reading more history, check out my article how to self-learn history, where you’ll find a systematic, 7-step roadmap for educating yourself in the fundamentals of the subject.