Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

University of California at Davis

My life as a historian has been mostly devoted to the study of American workers. Why I became a labor historian was partly a matter of background. My parents were immigrants (as, historically, were the vast majority of working people in the United States), I grew up in the working-class neighborhoods of a small industrial city, and I worked my way through college (with the aid of scholarships) in dining rooms, shoe stores, and factories. Studying history after World War II, I was both excited by the new scholarship in American social history and bothered that so little of it explored the experience of workers. But, in the end, what turned me to labor history was the discovery in graduate school of how interesting the problems and how rich the materials were for that subject. I have to acknowledge a strong element of accident in this discovery. While I ended up writing about iron and steelworkers, I had, in fact, started my thesis believing my topic was about World War I and its impact on popular ideology!

My journey has something to say, I think, about how students go about discovering that they want to be historians. First of all, there has to be some sense of calling—that one is drawn to the historian’s work and has a personal bent in that particular intellectual direction. Second, there has to be a conviction of something special and important in the often-solitary labors of the research side of what historians do. In part, the attraction is intellectual, almost a game, in which questions from the past call out to the student for answers. But what also is involved is the belief that something worthwhile is being done, maybe not in dollars and cents, but for the life of our society. It’s not a small thing to help uncover the historical voice of working people and to give them their rightful place in America’s past. Much the same struggle is now going forth as women, blacks, Asians, and Latinos enter the profession on behalf of so many other Americans who have been slighted and ignored by earlier generations of historians.

Ever since the ancient Greeks, the study of history has played a special role in Western civilization—on the one hand, as Greek historian Thucydides said, to tell the unvarnished truth about what happened, but, on the other, to make the past meaningful for one’s own generation and people. Those of us who have taken up that task know we have been especially fortunate in our life’s work. Young people of all backgrounds considering this as their life’s work should know likewise what a special choice they are making.

Next essay: Gordon H. Chang