There are certain college majors that always invite questions. If you say that you plan to major in Mechanical Engineering, people tend to understand why. It’s a fine profession with good pay and good hope for a future. However, if you also pick up a minor in Studio Arts by taking summer and winter courses, people tend to start asking questions. (Shout out to my friend Eric AKA Mastershrub https://www.youtube.com/user/multiplesmorgasms) In my case I chose to major in history, which I believe falls just behind philosophy in terms of provoking questions from people.
For the most part when people asked me why I decided to study history, I believe I gave them a shrug and said, “It’s just what I’ve always loved.” Most of them let it be after that, or if they were particularly stubborn they might follow up with, “So… Are you going to teach?” Yes? No? Maybe? Let’s just say I learned how to move the conversation along. History has always been my passion, and I could bore you with details about my mother being the town historian, or my life-long obsession with swords, but I’d prefer to get to the real heart of the discussion.
Why study history at all? Why do people obsess over it, when it seems for all intents and purposes to be a dry and fruitless subject? History doesn’t produce anything. It doesn’t serve the future, or the present. Hell, most people would say that it can’t help you find a job. So why do it?
There is no more human pursuit than studying history, because it connects you with people and places that you otherwise might never have known. We can find kinship between ourselves and people from the distant past by learning about their lives. I remember reading Machiavelli as an undergraduate and relating to his frustrations with his generation, and with himself, for weakness and inconstancy. When listening to Daniele Bolelli’s excellent podcast on Theodore Roosevelt, I found myself recognizing the president’s dissatisfaction with himself and his personal failings. It is always comforting to learn that someone else feels the same way that you feel. Even if that person happened to live a few centuries before you.
History can inspire us and teach us by offering us real life examples of everything that humankind is capable of, in the best and the worst ways. It is not hyperbole to say that historians have always known this to be true. The first historian, Herodotus, alternately known as the Father of History and the Father of Lies, began his famous history with this line:
“Herodotus of Halicarnassus here displays his inquiry, so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds—some displayed by Greeks, some by barbarians—may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.”
Herodotus wants us to recall the greatest triumphs of the human race, as he understood it at least, because there is inherent value in it. These are quite literally the first words of history ever composed, and they tell us a great deal about human nature. We have an inherent desire to be remembered, and to remember. 2400 years later we are still clamoring to understand history and to remember those who came before us.
We look to the past for models and insight into human behavior and how it can help us understand the way that current events are unfolding. Sometimes these serve as moments of inspiration, such as the Spartans declaring “Molon Labe,” when their enemies asked them to lay down their arms. Molon Labe means, “Come and take them.” These are powerful moments of inspiration, and they remind us of the strength that human beings, like us, can muster.
At other times we remember our history with fear and even distrust. We remember our greatest atrocities and genocides and we think, “Never again.” At the Anti-Muslim Ban protest in Boston a few weeks ago I was reminded of the importance of this. I am sure you have seen the poem First They Came by Martin Niemoller:
“First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me—
and there was no one left to speak for me.”
I saw more than a few signs that read, “First they came for the Muslims, and we said ‘Not this time’.”
To see modern day examples, one need go no further than recent comparisons between our current president and the original jack-ass, Andrew Jackson. Both are populist demagogues who appealed to the people and were widely loathed by large portions of the population. They both have a professed disdain for the judiciary branch and were determined to get their way no matter who is hurt in the process. The current issue with the Muslim Ban is shockingly similar to Andrew Jackson’s clash with Chief Justice John Marshall. “Marshall has made his decision; now let him enforce it!” I only hope that we act more efficiently than our forbears did, should Trump decide to destroy the national bank.
WHY IS THIS MAN ON OUR MONEY?
Studying history as a discipline has its own merits. Because history is constantly being analyzed and re-examined, it demands the highest level of scrutiny. Every record has been studied, every scrap of evidence turned over again and again, but there is always room to further understand the past. Studying every note and record develops an attention to detail that is widely applicable, and historical papers force one to argue a position based upon solid evidence. The tremendous, exhilarating challenge is to find new meaning in material that has been endlessly examined.
Furthermore, new insights can revolutionize how scholars view different periods and places and provide new methods of approach. Take The Midwife’s Tale by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, an analysis of a diary that provided a new view into the lives of 18th century American women that spawned countless debate and further analysis. A fresh perspective on material can lead to decades of re-examination and inquiry. Sometimes this will be debunked and ignored, and sometimes it will be a paradigm-shifting upset. But it teaches us to question, and to never stop questioning. I have become a better writer, and a better thinker, because of this.
Many people bemoan the boring aspects of historical education and historical inquiry. I understand this. I slept through my fair share of High School history classes as well. History is not all battle scenes and drama, despite what the History Channel’s Vikings tells us. (I should probably watch it before I throw stones.) A huge portion of historical research is about looking through dusty tomes and row upon row of seemingly useless information. But although these moments can be monotonous, they are also fascinating.
I worked as a research assistant for a professor as an undergraduate and examined hundreds of pages of newspaper articles from the nineteenth century. Whenever my mind started to wander, I tried to remind myself that I was looking at a literal message from the past. A reporter from 1878 had written an article in a paper expressing their opinion on something and had likely never thought of it again. Almost a hundred and fifty years later a lanky college student logged into a database and read that article, and then passed it onto his professor to determine whether or not it was important enough to include in her book. My life intersected with a man whom I had never met, and can never meet, and I received a message from him. I think that is kind of remarkable.
This is why I cannot stand bad history teachers. History is stranger and more interesting than fiction, if you are teaching it badly than you should be teaching something else. Take, for example, the history of De Rerum Natura, or On the Nature of Things, by Lucretius.
The book is a philosophical investigation into the principles of Epicureanism and his understanding of the nature of the universe. In this book he notes his belief that a “swerve” in the atoms of the universe causes profound change and ultimately leading to free will. It was seen to be largely heretical during the Middle Ages because it endorsed a belief in uncaring gods, atomism, (once a heretical doctrine) and what was perceived as hedonism. This book survived due to the incredible beauty of Lucretius’ Latin until it was miraculously recovered by the Italian Humanist Poggio Bracciolini in 1417. This resulted in the book’s survival, and resulted in the surprisingly modern ideas of Lucretius to be rediscovered and passed on well into the age of enlightenment. The discovery of this book effectively changed the course of intellectual history, all because of one of Lucretius’ “swerves.”
Or, if you care for a slightly more recent story, take the life of Edwin Booth. Edwin was the son of a famous Shakespearean actor, and he and his brothers were among the most famous thespians of their day. One day while waiting for a train a young man fell down onto the tracks. Edwin heroically leapt down and saved the boy from certain injury or death. The young man, Robert Lincoln, was the son of President Abraham Lincoln, and thanked Edwin, whom he recognized from the stage. Approximately two years later Edwin’s brother John Wilkes Booth shot President Lincoln at Ford’s Theater. I wouldn’t believe that if you wrote it into a story, would you?
History is unique in that it is a discipline that essentially encompasses all other fields. There is no subject more suited to inter-disciplinary research than history, where scholars can constantly search for a fresh perspective. Moreover, studying the past exposes us to the foundations of knowledge and all of human culture. Studying history can teach one about art and poetry, because these serve as additional tools with which to examine the past. As my old advisor once remarked “History gives you the world.” Granted we were trying to recruit new students at an open house, but still.
It is because I loved history that I tried to start reading as many classical works as I could. I suppose I hope that by reading these books I can begin to understand the traditions that more modern writers are working under. We are all constantly informed by the traditions that precede us, and we build upon them bit by bit. I love modern literature, and I love to see where writers have used something from a previous author’s work, or where they have chosen to subvert it.
I need to take back my previous statement that history produces nothing, because ultimately, history produces us. History is the source code of the world. It provides us with invaluable insight into why we are the way that we are. It informs every single action that is taken, and every action that has been taken. History helps us to understand the present and the future because it is their cause. As a person, and as a species, we make all of our decisions based upon our experiences. To quote the fictional John Quincy Adams from Amistad, “We understand now, we have been made to understand… that who we are is who we were.” I believe that knowing this can help us to be better in every respect.
History informs and shapes the world around us, and understanding it allows us to more intelligently forge our way forward. It shows us the greatest triumphs of our species, and the most crushing defeats. By studying, it we learn the importance of each individual person and event, no matter how seemingly insignificant. It forces us to constantly question, argue and re-imagine.
I would like to end on a thought that I consider very often. It’s by no means entirely original, but it’s something that I think that history has reinforced in me. Every single thing that has ever happened, every pulse of your heart, every breath your countless ancestors breathed, has led to this moment. So do something with it. One day we will all be history, and if we are lucky, we can be remembered.