Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

Stanford University

One of my most unpleasant recollections of high school concerns an assignment to memorize all the names of the presidents of the United States and their terms in office. I squirmed to find a way out of the task, but failed to do so. I also failed to pass the test.

The point of this little story is not to show that one can become a historian without a strong memory (which I still do not possess); rather it is to illustrate how unfortunate some early learning of history can be. Too often, the study of history is associated with the boring memorization of names (usually unpronounceable) of distant politicians and kings, dates of battle and wars, and this or that “turning point” or “age of . …” After that high school class, I never thought I would wind up teaching history.

It was only some years later I learned that history should not be the tortuous study of irrelevance. Rather, the study of history, to define it succinctly, is simply the study of people, of ourselves. It is the study of what people have done before us, and what they have done to make us what we are today. The type of history study that really excites me, that is not just a rendition of dry facts, is history study that encourages me to think about why society developed as it has. Why are we, as a people, as a nation, as a nationality, or whatever, the way we are? How did those who came before face and meet challenges, questions, and feelings similar to those we face in our individual lives today, unique as we think they are? Ultimately, the study of history is essential to me if I am to gain any understanding of what I am today.

Why study history? To know what it is to live; to know how others have thought and lived; to know why society and the world are the way they are; to help us forge our own lives—and by so doing, to make history itself.

By the way, one way of making history is to help in the rewriting of history itself. There is a need for new historians who can write about topics that were long neglected or who can write in a way that is more meaningful for those of us today who were omitted or insulted in traditional accounts. The past is not dead; it is as alive as we are!

Next essay: Spencer R. Crew