Why History?

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Anyone who has a history degree will be asked numerous times in their life why they majored in a subject seen by many as quaint and irrelevant. I’ll resist the temptation to wax poetic (or maybe wane) about they myriad of skills one masters in pursuit of such a degree that would be invaluable in many career choices. Did my two history degrees make me a better detective? I like to think so. If anything, I was comfortable writing and much of police work, unlike the television shows, takes place in front of a computer writing endless reports that may never be read. But I digress. That is certainly not the reason I majored in history. What follows is:

First of all, I suck at math. Terribly. Anything more complex than simple addition and subtraction (and perhaps division and multiplication) is beyond the capabilities of my oft rattled brains. When I was a child of 6, I checked out my first book from the library in my hometown. I cannot recall the name, but it had a red cover and was about the Civil War. As I gaze around my 900 square foot house filled with 2,000 book and five cats, I tend to blame that book. Growing up, I suffered from a speech impediment which caused painful shyness. This drove me to seek comfort between the covers of a book. Thankfully, my parents encouraged my reading.

I never saw history as being about dead people. I fully believe the spirits of those who’ve gone before are never far away, not in a ghost hunter way, but rather in an inspirational way. Students in my classes are taught to view these figures as living, breathing people with the same hopes, fears, and dreams that we have. Though our time periods change, human emotion doesn’t. Did love feel somehow different 200 years ago? Did fear? Or hunger? The past is, quite simply, the greatest reality show ever made.

As I teach survey courses, I do not expect to convince my students to suddenly love history and major in it. What I do sincerely hope is that they at least take away an appreciation for it, that’s all. I wouldn’t say I’m a great teacher and probably not even a very good one. What I am, however, is a decent storyteller. While many professors focus on all of the “isms” that go along with history, I prefer to focus on the people. The lives they led, the deaths they died, and the dreams they fulfilled or lost. For as Kipling said, “I have eaten your bread and salt. I’ve drunk your water and wine. The lives ye led I have watched beside and the deaths ye died were mine.”

I like to think I did not choose history, but rather history chose me.

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