Rev. Andrew van Kirk: "I Think Better About the World"
We asked Reverend Andrew van Kirk to tell us how his history degree has affected life and work after college. This is what he said:
Ten years out, my mind can no longer lay claim to many of the dates, figures, and events that made up the raw material of my history major at Duke. That's ok. The four years of study, culminating in the senior honors thesis seminar, took those raw materials and built an edifice that continues to structure the way I understand and relate to the world today.
I can pick up the Economist or the New York Times and my understanding of the contents is informed by some degree of context, but that's not really what I mean. It's deeper than that. My studies as a history major greatly complicated my sense of cause and effect as it relates to the domain of human society, while at the same time giving me the tools necessary to analyze that complexity. I think better about the world.
In terms of concrete skill development, the history major (and the thesis program in particular) made me a much better writer. Partly this was a matter of improved skill and style, what might be termed technical proficiency. More than that, however, the sort of writing one has to do as a history major is writing that works to make sense of concrete people and events in the real world. This skill of tying written words to the real world in a way that is both accurate and appealing has served me well in every place I've been since Duke, from software engineer to Episcopal priest. I've had the blessing of living, working, and studying with very smart people since college. In circles where degrees and initials after one's name are common, my writing skills have continued to serve as a differentiating factor.
As preparation for further academic work, the honors thesis was invaluable. There was nothing I encountered as a graduate student, even my PhD seminars, that involved the degree of sustained research, argument and effort as the history thesis seminar.
Having a history major from Duke did not render me immediately employable as a historian. But it turns out the working world is primarily made up of people, not raw skills, and by the time I graduated I already had a lot of history studying people and the way they react and make decisions.