Why Become a Historian?
Introduction, by Robert Blackey
Rodolfo F. Acuña
Gordon H. Chang
Spencer R. Crew
Natalie Zemon Davis
Nadine Ishitani Hata
Thomas Cleveland Holt
James Riding In
by Robert Blackey, California State University at San Bernardino
As you read this pamphlet, try to remember that each of the contributors was once a student—yes, quite possibly, even a student like you. We were all in awe of some teachers (my first was Miss Ruth Kowalsky, a history teacher in a public junior high school in New York City), while others we quickly forgot. Did we ever imagine we might become historians? Sure we did, but mostly we were probably afraid to imagine, often thinking this was not something within our grasp. We had self-doubt and second thoughts, sometimes all through college and graduate school, and sometimes even after we entered the profession.
Being a teacher is a lot like being a parent in that it includes a tremendous amount of responsibility. Being a teacher of history adds another burden: it's like being a parent in charge of memory, in this case, society's memory. And since our memories tend to be selective—remembering mostly what serves our purposes—the burden of the historian is to restore and retain that memory until it is as true and complete as we can make it.
Just as the United States is a diverse nation, consisting of people either from or descended from people all over the world, so, too, is it vital for our collective memory and our world outlook to have historians who represent that diversity, who can provide a special slant or perspective so we can all do a better job. No one has a corner on truth, and there is no single truth. The more we can learn of the past—of the entire human experience—the better we may be able to survive. In this fundamental task, historians play a central role. Someone needs to continue the work. Why not you?
There is another reason for becoming a historian: it's fun. The mystery in history brings out the detective in us; there are countless unsolved crimes and riddles and unresolved debates. I'm nosy enough to want to put my two cents in, and I'm concerned enough to care. It's also fun to learn about people, both famous and ordinary. Because times are always changing, habits change, as do styles, customs, technology, and levels of knowledge. I enjoy learning about the human side (including the quirks, foibles, and vices) of prominent people and about daily life during another time, in another culture. Maybe most importantly, at least for me, is that history is fun to teach: I like to tell stories and engage young minds in constructive debate that leads to understanding and personal growth—theirs and mine; I like to instruct and inform; and I like to learn. I also like to turn skeptics (especially those who think history is boring or a waste of time) into believers; and I like to do things in class that result in a smile, a look of puzzlement or recognition or concern. In other words, I like to light sparks and to make a difference. Being a historian, and especially one who teaches, has helped me to enjoy life (both at home and when I travel) and to realize who I am.
Perhaps you'll be able to see a little bit of yourself among the words of those who have contributed to this pamphlet. We hope our experiences and ideas will give you something to think about.