I really liked Mauricio's recent post, Many Undergrads Should Take Light Courseloads. I agree that the majority of the value of college is outside of the classes, and that taking too many classes can detract from other very important things you could be doing.

Still, as a student, you do have to take classes in order to graduate. Most of those classes will be determined by your major and what you intend to do after college. But, at least in the US, some of your classes won't be related to your major. What should you take?

As a computer science major, I have taken some non-CS classes that were far more valuable than the average CS class. Most of them were history classes. In general, I think that history classes can be quite useful, especially for people in EA. In this post, I'll share some lessons I've learned from history.

First, a couple caveats:

  • I'm generally interested in history so this is likely to be biased. This might not be the advice for you if you've always hated history classes (but again, maybe you just haven't had the right history class).
  • Yale (the university I attend) is supposed to have one of the best history departments in the world (according to dubious news sources). It's possible this isn't good advice at some universities with weaker history departments, but I doubt this.

With those out of the way, I'll share what I've learned from history classes:

  • Well-meaning people can do very bad things. History is filled with people who we would now call immoral, because of the terrible actions that they took. While some of them acted purely out of self-interest, others were actually trying to do good.
  • The ends often don't pan out. Consequentialism is obviously quite important in EA, for very good reason. That being said, history is filled with examples of consequentialism going wrong. Why? Because somebody was overconfident in their predictions about the value or probability of the ends. They put very high probability on very high value outcomes when they shouldn't have. The imagined ends might actually have justified the actual means, but history shows there is a difference between the imagined ends and the realized ends.
  • The future is hard to predict. Humans like to make predictions about the future, and there are many historical examples. Lots of people end up being very wrong. Some end up being right, but not for the reasons they said. Others predict things eerily well. It's sometimes useful to think about these successes and failures when making your own prediction about the future.
  • Morality changes, a lot. What people consider good and bad varies tremendously across time and space. Many EA's are probably familiar with the idea of the expanding circle, but this is a relatively simplistic way of describing the fact that morality can change quite significantly and rapidly. What we believe is right today might not last.
  • Ideologies come and go. The majority of ideologies do not last as they were originally articulated. Many simply die; others are subsumed into other ideologies; others evolve with the times. Projects driven by all-encompassing ideologies sometimes succeed, but they are often eventually coopted by other ideologies.
  • Things have not always been this way. There are a lot of things that many of us take for granted in modern society, especially in Western countries. Bureacracies, secularism, peace at home, capitalism, borders, nation states... the list goes on. And yet, many of these things didn't exist, or existed very differently, not very long ago. This knowledge can help with the realization that immense change could still be on the horizon.

Lots of these things are somewhat obvious. Still, taking the time to process history allows you to actually process them, in a way that I think is very important.

You might wonder what kinds of history classes to take. In the past, I've taken: European Intellectual History since Neitzsche, Eastern European History To 1914, A History of South Africa, and now a class on American history in the 20th century. Here are a few things I value in a history class:

  • Primary source readings. The best way to learn history is often from those who lived it. Stay away from classes that teach from textbooks and look for classes that teach from the primary sources.
  • Engaging lectures. Most history classes you'll take are likely to be lectures. You will learn far more if they are engaging. Even if a class is on an area of history you find fascinating, you won't learn much if the professor has a monotone style and slides with 200 words each.
  • Research assignments. Research is a good way to learn actively rather than passively. Also, in many cases, you can probably make the research on something that is relevant to EA. For instance, I am now writing a paper on the biological weapons convention.
  • Not much emphasis on memorization. Memorizing history facts is very unimportant. You want the key themes, not the key dates. You might have to memorize some facts for your classes, but the classes should be mostly not about memorizing facts.

Lastly, I will close by saying that like every professor, history professors have agendas. They have their own view of history and how they want to present it. The best history professors tell stories, and those stories often have morals. Don't always take them for granted.

The next time you sit down to consider classes, and realize you need to satisfy a requirement or you have a blank space in your schedule, remember this post: consider history.

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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 9:52 PM

I like the post but I'm not entirely convinced. Even if these are optional classes to pad your degree out, you'd have to think taking history classes adds more value than all other potential options. I don't entirely believe that's the case even if I agree with many of your points in the post.

I appreciate this point a lot! I think the counterfactual value of taking history classes is pretty hard to generalize across university students because everyone has different tradeoffs. Some students might have more value from taking other kinds of classes, even other kinds of "padding" classes. Good candidates might be CS, economics, philosophy, math, and maybe a writing class. My general sense is that the value of those classes are more well known in EA (e.g. I see many people majoring in the first four) and probably don't need an explanation. I think history might need more of an explanation, which is why I offered one here. In general, I do agree that people should be thinking about this counterfactually, but I think the outcome would be very dependent on the individual student.

I'm skeptical of your claim that primary sources are better than secondary books. In particular, it seems that the insight-to-effort ratio is very small, as given a secondary book which comes recommended by people knowledgeable in the field, it seems you can get approximately the same insights as a primary source, but with far far less effort.

Can you expand on why you think either the fidelity of the insight transfer from the primary to secondary source is small, or why I'm overestimating the difficulty of reading primary sources (or some other reason you think I should care more about primary sources which I haven't thought of)?

I definitely don't mean to say that classes shouldn't have secondary sources; they should and these sources are important (I am less excited about tertiary sources). I think a key to primary sources is something like the ability to read current sources as primary sources. If you develop the skills to be able to understand primary sources in the context of history, it helps enable you to be able to evaluate primary sources of today. I see history as a good way to learn how to evaluate the world at present, and the world at present has more primary than secondary sources about it.

I think this post makes a better case that we should be interested in history than that we should attend history classes. 

I agree that we could do well to learn from and meditate on the highs and lows of history and that I my opinions are parochial and shortsighted.

Thanks for writing.

I just want to second this recommendation. In my experience a lot of people are ignorant of various important facts about the world, including my past self, and don't realize it because they don't know what they are missing. Presumably my present self is also ignorant of important things that more history learning could fix.

Personally, I have tended to enjoy the history classes I took, but I also felt that actual history “classes” are not the most efficient way to learn broader lessons/concepts. For example, I took a Russian revolutionary (~1860–1921) history class, which I personally found interesting (especially since I was also studying Russian language). I feel like I learned quite a few interesting stories, and even learned some broader concepts about failure modes for democratic governance (e.g., division among more-moderate parties vs. cohesion among some of the more-militant parties), political power structures, foreign manipulation of domestic politics, etc. However, the class also required learning/memorizing a serious amount of dates, names, places, etc. for tests, despite not actually being pivotal to learning the broader concepts.

I certainly haven’t thought all that long about it, but I do feel like history could be taught much more efficiently for people like me who want to learn important lessons from history to update their models and/or get a sense of what might happen moving forward. For example, integrating short-ish (e.g., 3 week) history modules that don’t focus so much on the specific details into political science classes on specific themes like “political revolutions” or “social conceptions of morality”? Of course, if you like learning all the details and/or telling the stories in conversations, then the traditional format seems like a good route.

Classes are often not the most efficient way to learn things. History is certainly no different, and I think the idea of history modules sounds very interesting. That being said, I wrote this post mainly for undergrads who have to operate within the boundaries of classes to some extent.

I would like to  address on the point "the ends don't often pan out".  It appears that the issues you have discussed are involved with failures of instrumental reasons and epistemic failures as opposed to problems with consequentialism as a moral system.  I believe learning from these failures don't necessarily  involve in history but can be also achieved from alternative sources. For example, a mechanical engineer would learn about Challenger disaster. Similarly, a nuclear engineer would learn from Fukushima disaster.