Why Study History?: Thoughts on the Job of a Historian for History Teachers

A junior student asked me last May, during dorm duty, “Ms. Berry–What can you do with a history degree?”

Me: (joking) “You mean, besides do what I do?”

Student: (sheepishly) “Well… yes.”

Me: (in my best saleswomen voice with the goal of admiring her foresight, but also lessening her anxiety about the college process )…

I spoke somewhat apprehensively about the skills that are developed at a liberal arts school, and in the humanities especially (and noted this was from my limited perspective/experience). We discussed how the job she will likely do, probably has not yet been created... it was definitely an unintentional plug for the liberal arts approach. Then I spoke about being interested in what you are studying, and how important that is to success.

But I need a better answer to this question, “why study history?” While education is the focus of my career so far, why history education?  I have been with 30 teachers for the past week (mostly history, some English and one librarian) studying Thomas Jefferson and the Enlightenment. As we debate the enigmatic character of the father of both the Declaration of Independence and slave Sally Hemmings’ children (likely), we were constantly trying to reconcile competing images of a hero of the American national story. Should we care that he was a slave owner? He was a “man of his time”… but the argument goes, he was also “not a man of his times” (all men are created equal, unalienable rights etc). What is the historian’s job? What is the history teacher’s job? Is it to defend Jefferson? Apologize for Jefferson? Indict Jefferson? Are these even the right questions to be asking? (also these questions are at the heart of the AP US curriculum debate). The opinions and ideas of this group of teachers had me asking…what does it mean to be a historian? Perhaps, if I try to define the role I play in regards to Jefferson’s story, then I can ask a better question.

What is the job description of a historian? Often historians are teachers, and sometimes a teacher would identify as a historian. Are “professional” historians just those with a PhD?  What about the mental engines behind small town historical societies? But what exactly does a historian do? Study the past is the simplest description. So how do they study? It seems that the historian appropriates/adopts the methodology of other professions as they seek to study the past. What is the job description, then, of the history teacher? To facilitate burgeoning historians? To model being a historian? So then I return to my first question: what is the job description of a historian? A few ideas…

Tell stories.                      

Historians can be story tellers in the tradition of Herodotus.

Investigate the data.      

Historians can be scientists of the past, carefully measuring data with the precision of a chemist, but their scientific method is foiled by the countless  unknown variables.

Weigh the evidence.    

Historians can be lawyers, carefully weighing the available evidence to judge the past.

Listen and analyze.      

Historians can be psychologists, poring over diaries and letters with a Freudian lens judging sexuality, phobias and temperaments.

Architects of a national story.     

Historians can be politician-soldiers , “Defenders of the Faith” whatever that faith may be, if their hero is Thomas Jefferson, if their historical satan is Thomas Jefferson, some historians are in the business of defending the fairy tale given by the storytellers to young children.

Time travelers. 

Historians can yearn to be anthropologists as well, and travel back in time and live among and study their subjects, one reason for the many historical reenactments.

The verb “to reconcile” seems closest to the work I do with my students. See the Google definition below. The french word conciliare means “bring together”. How do we reconcile, or bring together the view of Jefferson as the author of words below yet also the view of him as salesmen of humans, and more contentiously, a rapist by modern standards?

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness”

Reconciliation has a positive connotation, but when a historian does it, is it a positive thing? Seeking to reconcile is an important part of the historian’s job, but we should, perhaps, clarify that it is a constant state of trying to reconcile, rather than asking students to square a circle. The hardest part of teaching history, I find, is the lack of a “right answer” for students. However, it is also my answer to “why study history”? There is no right answer, but seeking to answer, seeking to reconcile the irreconcilable, is not only a practice in critical thinking, but a constant acknowledgement of human complexity. Jefferson is the archetype of a historical paradox, a walking contradiction, and he is not unique.

Rudulph Evans’s statue of Thomas Jefferson was mounted in the Jefferson Memorial in 1947, four years after the memorial opened, Washington, D.C. Highsmith, Carol M., 1946-, photographer, http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2011633648/

James Akin. “A Philosophic Cock,” Newburyport, Massachusetts, c. 1804. Hand-colored aquatint. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society, Worcester, Massachusetts (140), http://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/jefffed.html.

reconcile ˈrɛk(ə)nsʌɪl verb
verb: reconcile; 3rd person present: reconciles; past tense: reconciled; past participle:reconciled; gerund or present participle: reconciling
  1. 1.
    restore friendly relations between.
    “the king and the archbishop were publicly reconciled”
    • settle (a quarrel).
      “advice on how to reconcile the conflict”
      synonyms: reunite, bring (back) together (again), restore friendly relations between, restore harmony between, make peace between, resolve differences between, bring to terms; More

      “the news reconciled us”
      settle, resolve, patch up, sort out, smooth over, iron out, put to rights, mend, remedy, heal, cure, rectify
      “the quarrel was reconciled”
      antonyms: estrange, alienate
    • make or show to be compatible.
      “the agreement had to be reconciled with the city’s new international relations policy”
      synonyms: make compatible, harmonize, square, make harmonious,synthesize, make congruent, cause to be in agreement, cause to sit happily/easily with; More

      “it wasn’t easy trying to reconcile his religious beliefs with his career”
    • make someone accept (a disagreeable or unwelcome thing).
      “he was reconciled to leaving”
      synonyms: accept, come to accept, resign oneself to, come to terms with, learn to live with, get used to, make the best of, submit to, accommodate oneself to, adjust oneself to, become accustomed to, acclimatize oneself to; More

      grin and bear it;
      informallike it or lump it
      “the creditors had to reconcile themselves to drastic losses of income and capital”
  2. 2.
    make (one account) consistent with another, especially by allowing for transactions begun but not yet completed.
    “it is not necessary to reconcile the cost accounts to the financial accounts”
Origin
late Middle English: from Old French reconcilier or Latin reconciliare, from Latin re- ‘back’ (also expressing intensive force) + conciliare ‘bring together’.

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