Why I Study History

This semester, I have the privilege of studying under some of the best professors I’ve ever had. Last night, in my first class of Civil War America, I had a professor who managed to keep me engaged in his lecture for three hours. No offense to any professors out there, but that is quite the feat, especially considering the time of the class (6-9 at night) when I’d rather be anywhere but in class. I was sitting, quite literally, on the edge of my seat for three hours listening to this man lecture on the Civil War with such excitement that one rarely sees in your average General Education course. This professor had incredibly profound things to say, both about the field of history and the Civil War.

We began class discussing why studying history is important and why it is so much more than dates on a timeline. My professor brought a quote to our attention from Simon Schama’s Dead Certainties about historians and the nature of studying history. “We are doomed to be forever hailing someone who has just gone around the corner and out of earshot.” I had never truly thought of history in this way, but now I realize that it is an excellent way of explaining this field. We can study, research, spend years in the archives, and still never be able to produce a perfectly accurate history. This is simultaneously the most beautiful and frustrating aspect of history. We can never reach that person who has just gone around the corner. It leaves us with many questions that will never be answered and a great deal of room for our personal interpretation.

We then moved on to why we study history. As a junior history major, I’ve spent a great deal of time considering this. What is it about history that captivates me? I’ve read books and taken classes on this topic, and yet, I can never find an answer that fully satisfies. My professor put it perfectly when he said that we study history to understand the range of human existence. History is not dates on a timeline. It is the connective tissue between those dates, and, as historians, we have the opportunity to choose what we do with that connective tissue – how we look at it, what story we tell. History is not something that is perfect. There will always be mistakes, and that is what is truly beautiful about history. The imperfections of history are what make it an art, not a science. History allows us to be able to see our imperfections, both in the work we do and in the lives we lead. Studying history allows us to become better. That’s why I study history.

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