Much More than a Bearded Lady: Brief Thoughts on the Goal of History

I have been somewhat removed from consistent historical thinking since I graduated from Messiah College in May. No, let me rephrase. I have been removed from deliberate historical thinking since I graduated from Messiah College in May. That is to say, I do not sit and endlessly ponder deep historical questions as I was prone to do in school (at least not nearly as often).

However I do find myself consistently approaching even the minutiae of life with a historian’s ethos. I acknowledge culture and context. I ask why. I consider the agency of those involved and above all else, I try to make it personal. If I took one thing from my undergraduate history studies it is the profoundly intimate nature of history. It is a discipline that penetrates deep into your soul, fostering an uncomfortable, but intoxicating awareness of the human condition. And that’s what history truly is – the study of the human condition. Yes, history is change over time and yes, history is names and dates and facts, but those are merely details. History’s heart, what really makes it tick, is the individual experience of the people we study. Who were they really? What they did is not so important as why they did it.

The mystery and intrigue make history fascinating, but what really sets history apart is its commonality. Indeed, history is not just reserved for museums or professors. How could it be when everyone holds a stake. Show me one person with no bearing on history and I’ll show you an illusion. That’s the beauty. History exists as both personal and public; individual and corporate. Each and every person represents a unique perspective on any given event. It is an exciting, dynamic system full of diversity, but also one that witnesses its share of division.

For example, is not history supposed to be objective?

And there it is, the common assumption that has plagued history for, well, all of history. Conventional thought goes something like this: History is the past. By definition, the past already happened. Therefore, history must be objective.

This assumption is neat and tidy, conveniently shrugging off perhaps the most important facet of history as nothing more than a bearded lady; a circus sideshow to novel over briefly, but one that is ultimately inconsequential. But it is not that simple. There are objective pieces to the history puzzle for sure (names, dates, and things of that nature), but to treat history as completely objective not only does the discipline a great disservice, but insults the intimate connection we all have to the past. There are captivating experiences to be had if only we are able to look past the lady’s beard and encounter her culture, her convictions, her stories, and her experiences – all of the things that make up her history.

That is probably enough artistic rendering for one day (although, the history as art vs. history as science debate is quite the hot topic, itself). To be somewhat more concrete, think about the Boston Tea Party. One of American history’s defining moments, the Boston Tea Party contains myriad objective pieces. The location, those involved, and even the actions of those involved are fixed. There are no two ways about them. But, a quick Google Books search for “Boston Tea Party” will give you over 200,000 results. Could there be that much literature on a single event if history were purely objective? You see, the goal of history is to create meaning. Historians, professional or otherwise, are interpreters. They do not merely to uncover the past, but craft a story of the past that gives meaning, causes debate, and appeals to our humanity in connection to those that came before us.

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Twitter Handle: @buddy_hocutt Buddy graduated from Messiah College in 2014 with a bachelor's degree in history and peace and conflict studies. Currently, he works as a content writer for Clark Associates in Lancaster, PA Buddy has a wide range of historical interests, but 20th century Europe, especially the former Soviet Union, holds a special place in his heart. He has spent significant time traveling through Northern Europe and has experienced some of that history for himself during visits to Moscow, St. Petersburg, and the Baltic states. Buddy also loves intellectual history, a passion he was turned on to during his senior history seminar. Buddy hopes to emphasize the unique role history plays in every facet of life. He loves to explore different ideas, particularly ideas counter to the status quo, the roles those ideas played in the past, and the effect of those ideas on the present. Buddy eventually plans to further his education in graduate school.

Posted in Some Simple Rants On History, The Ways Historians Think

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