History Department
History Department

Josiah Daniel to Class of '15: "History is our best guide to the future”

Mon, June 29, 2015
Josiah Daniel to Class of '15:
Josiah M. Daniel III, History Commencement Speaker. May 22, 2015

Josiah M. Daniel III, partner in the international law firm Vinson & Elkins, LLP, received his bachelor’s degree in History from the University of the South, Sewanee, Tennessee in 1973. He received his J.D. from The University of Texas School of Law in 1978 and his master’s degree in History from UT in 1986.

In 2011, Mr. Daniel was elected to membership in the prestigious American Law Institute. He is an inaugural member and former Chair of the UT History Department Visiting Committee. Selected the History commencement speaker this year, Mr. Daniel presented a rousing address at Hogg Auditorium for the History Class of 2015. Printed below is a transcript of his speech in its entirety.

When you look at the professors on this stage, what do you see?  Teachers of classes you have taken, people you have come to know over the past four years?  Yes, and more.  You know this, but for the benefit of your guests, I will also observe that the assembled professors on this small stage are representatives of what is one of the preeminent history faculties in our nation.

This is a faculty that includes the finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in History and the Bancroft Prize in American History, probably the most published historian in the nation, the winners of many excellence-in-teaching awards, and many other widely recognized and highly awarded professors.

These outstanding individuals were your teachers.  You have learned from the best!

Those of us fortunate enough to hold degrees from the University of Texas at Austin will always have fond memories of our years here.  I spent two memorable years in Garrison Hall pursuing my master’s degree in history, way back in 1973-1975.

And my happiest memory of Garrison is meeting my wife in a history seminar titled “The Great Powers of Europe” in August of 1974!

Today, based on my experiences since I was in Garrison Hall, I want to focus on this question: 

What is the REAL VALUE of your history degree?

As you know, there are those who do question its value.  Some of them may be seated in this audience right now!
I submit that you made a superb choice when you decided to major in history.

To begin, we all acknowledge that the study of history is intrinsically important and valuable to the development and life of the intellect.  We study the past for a host of significant reasons.  We seek to learn and to understand what humans have done in the past and how and why they did those things.

Because we cannot go back in time, we read what has been written about it, we see the artifacts and fruits of prior times, and then we search for new and additional evidence to inform our understanding of those past events.  And yet, in William Faulkner’s words, which furnish the excellent name for the Department’s internet outreach to the world, the past is “Not Even Past.”

In a work I ran across recently titled “Race and Commemoration in a Southern City,” historian Katherine Walker harkens back to Faulkner’s words when she wrote:

The past is not even past. It lives on in the historical narratives we inherit, in the ways we use places, in the assumptions we make about art, in the shape of our political processes. The past lives on in our individual or collective identities; we garb ourselves in identities created in the past, perhaps accessorizing them, but rarely making them over out of new cloth.

You have learned these things of which the author speaks.  

Regardless whether your particular interest lies in cultural, political, social, economic, religious, environmental, presidential, or even legal history, and regardless the century or the place, from your studies in Garrison Hall you know these things.

So continue always to read history because it is our best guide to the future, really our only guide.

But how can your study of history help you, after today, as you enter upon a career and in your daily work?

Your career will likely be a succession of jobs.  Your first job will not be your last job, and each of your jobs will become a stepping stone to the next one.  You likely will change careers more than once in the years ahead.  So how will your study and training in the methods of history help you?

The first of my answers to that question is that your research skills, analytical abilities, and the capability to write clear, explanatory sentences, paragraphs, and reports will serve you quite well.  These are skills that are, and will always be, in demand.  This is, in fact, a big advantage you have over the bachelor’s degree recipients in the Business School, who can no doubt ably insert numbers into Excel spreadsheets, but have not had the benefit of the opportunity to learn, from this faculty seated behind me, the art of writing clearly.

I understand that there are jobs out there for which you will not be qualified or hired.  Examples probably include highly specialized positions such as chemist, or electrical engineer or any kind of engineer, or computer scientist.  But I cannot think of many more jobs for which you would not be qualified.

Some of you are going to be teachers of history, a very commendable choice of career. You will continue to spend a lot of time with history in the education of our youth.  There is nothing more valuable.

Others of you are headed to law school.  The study of history is good preparation for the legal profession because lawyers must find and then apply relevant statutes and the rules set forth in judicial opinions.  Researching and analyzing those statutes, their legislative histories, and the progression of the case law is an inherently historical exercise.

Still others of you will find employment in government and public service. Research, analysis, the evaluation of policies, and writing are key skills in these jobs.

Finally, there are those of you who will find employment in the sales of goods, properties, and services; in the creation and production of products and services of all types; in companies of all kinds, large and small; in bricks-and-mortar facilities, and over the Internet.

By earning a B.A. in history, you have proven that you can find and master primary sources of all types and can synthesize divergent interpretations and explanations.  So if in your first, or a subsequent, job, you need to do so, you can and will be able to learn tools of the marketplace such as how to read a balance sheet and an income statement, how buying and selling are conducted in the world of commerce, how a logistics business works, what a “back office” is, and many other forms and types of business activities, functions, and processes.  Your history degree will serve you well in these jobs.

In fact, in almost any job today, you will be asked to find and gather all manner of information, to try to make sense of it, and to write up your analysis and explanation for your employers and for your colleagues. These are qualitatively the same projects in which you have been engaged as a history major.

If you go to work for a company, its product or its service will inevitably be challenged and frequently superseded by a competitor’s newer, better, and cheaper product or service.  That is the nature of the market economy.  Your company will encounter these and other changes of all types.

How does the enterprise make sense of such changes?  That is again where historical training is a real asset.  You understand, as a history major, that nothing happens in a vacuum.  There is a context for each new development.  There is a history that can and does help to make sense of what is happening, even if it seems that the situation is new or totally unprecedented.

By finding the context, understanding the history, and formulating a path forward based on what can be learned and known, you will be using what you have learned as a history major and the skills you have obtained in earning a B.A. in Garrison Hall here at the University of Texas at Austin.

So I congratulate you on your accomplishments and your receipt of your degrees . . . . and I assure you that you have what it takes to be a success!


"Visiting Committee Chair Josiah M. Daniel, III awarded Texas Bar Foundation prize"

"Visiting Committee Chair Josiah M. Daniel, III is elected to membership in The American Law Institute"

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