Bruce Geelhoed, History

“Frustrations, Detours, and Disappointments”

As a historian of American Business History, I enjoy reading about the careers of entrepreneurs who have either majored in history as undergraduate students or who have found that the knowledge they acquired from their history courses has been useful in their professional lives. As historians we do extensive research; we attempt to write clearly and concisely; and we are trained to defend our findings before peer-reviewed audiences. Moreover, we attempt to train and educate our students so that they too learn those skills. Do those skills necessarily transfer, however, over to those who make their careers outside of the world of education and academia?  

For one example, I was reading recently about the career of Lloyd Blankfein, who from 2006-2018 was the chairman of Goldman Sachs, the investment banking company. Blankfein grew up in a working-class family in Brooklyn and, as an undergraduate student at Harvard, was a “Social Studies concentrator,” majoring in history. After completing his undergraduate degree, Blankfein attended the Harvard Law School and then practiced law for several years. As he later explained, as a young lawyer, he experienced the “frustrations, detours, and disappointments” of building a career, just like the people he was reading about in his selection of history books. 

 Once he became an investment banker, Blankfein spoke openly about the value of studying history for one in his position as a leader of commerce. He recommended studying history ahead of economics or management because “you can read about people who failed five or six times before accomplishing great things or didn’t achieve success until they were older.” When it came to his preferences in historical literature, Blankfein chose biographies. “What I liked about biographies,” Blankfein once said, “is that the person you are reading about in his early years on page 30, doesn’t even know the success they will have on page 300. They couldn’t see the greatness that lay ahead.” 

In recognition of his strong belief in the value of studying history, Blankfein established the Lloyd C. Blankfein Professorship in History at Harvard in 2004 (Professor David Armitage currently holds the Blankfein Professorship.) “There are cycles to things,” Blankfein observed. “I can’t live in the current period without analogizing into a different one… You can learn from history…you have the reassurance that most of what has happened, the equivalent has happened before.” As we continue to make meaningful connections between disparate events, periods, and personalities, we can see how the value of studying history goes well beyond the exercise of transferable skills. As Blankfein’s career demonstrates, knowing history is also useful in decision-making. 


Bruce Geelhoed
Chair of the Department of History
Professor of History

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