Last Monday, I attended “Map of the Modern World,” taught by Mark Giordano, Georgetown University professor of geography and vice dean for undergraduate affairs in the School of Foreign Service (SFS). At the end of class, he was urged to answer a contested question by one of my peers: “What is the best major in the SFS?” He responded by emphasizing that each major of the SFS is exhaustive, but the international history major does not receive the attention that it deserves. The major concentrates on the history of the social, economic and political drivers that influence our world today. According to Giordano, about 10 students in the SFS major in international history every year.
As someone who particularly enjoys studying international history and intends to major in it, I realize how significant this major would be for students pursuing studies in foreign affairs. I was not only taken aback by the number but confused as to why students in the SFS, many of whom are guided by global humanitarian issues, are indifferent to matters concerning the study of history.
My personal avidity for this subject ultimately stems from my appreciation for the interdependence of history, storytelling and policymaking as a means to amplify narratives that have been silenced throughout history. In his 1965 essay “The White Man’s Guilt,” writer James Baldwin eloquently reinforces this notion as he writes, “The great force of history comes from the fact that we carry it within us, are unconsciously controlled by it … History is literally present in all that we do.” The study of history is a vital tool in unearthing and discerning historical truths, a skill that is imperative in becoming effective advocates, policymakers and leaders. Specifically, it is important to recognize that history has been predominantly written from an imperialist perspective that misconstrues, ignores or rewrites the perspectives of those who have been left voiceless throughout history.
In the same vein, it is essential to understand how and why history is ever present in each of our lives. The fundamental role that history plays in the power of storytelling often goes unnoticed. We are all ultimately shaped by the stories of history, particularly by those that have stripped individuals of their right to determine how they are depicted in the centuries that succeed them. The victims of colonized history continue to live with its aftereffects today.
This is precisely why students at Georgetown must immerse themselves in historical narratives — to dignify silenced voices, embark on policy making with equity and, in turn, seek justice in each of our lives. As individuals who have the luxury of studying at an academic institution like Georgetown, it is our responsibility to do what we must to not only recognize the existence of oppressed histories, but also elevate them so they are acknowledged, addressed and treated with the respect that they deserve.
Within the SFS student body, there are at least two contributing factors as to why so few people are interested in international history, Giordano wrote in an email to The Hoya.
“One is that there has been a general turn by students away from humanities and non-quantitative social sciences, at Georgetown but more broadly,” Giordano wrote. “The second is that we could do a better job institutionally at SFS and Georgetown in explaining why history is so important.”
Giordano asserted that studying history strengthens critical thinking, communication and leadership abilities. He highlights that the value students gain from studying history is fundamentally rooted in perspective, elaborating that if one does not understand the history of a problem, it is more difficult to conceive feasible solutions.
“Anyone who has taken Map of the Modern World from me knows that I spend a lot of time telling the history of a place both so that we can understand the present but also so that we can understand why the present might be interpreted differently by different people,” Giordano wrote.
The power of history, and the multitude of stories that constitute it, is something that we all must engage with in one form or another at Georgetown. As we delve deeper into intractable problems in each of our academic pathways, we must pay close attention to the intricacies that construct history, and in doing so, champion the voiceless stories we encounter in the work we pursue.
By acquiring a deep understanding of history and acknowledging who has been prevented from contributing to it, we will become better equipped to tackle persisting issues that are a product of oppressive historical patterns — patterns that reverberate throughout history as it is being written today.
Selma Zuaiter is a freshman in the School of Foreign Service.