Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

Miami Sunset Senior High School

The sentence “You should consider being a historian” might not catch the interest of many teenagers. As a teacher of history, I base this opinion on the general attitudes I hear teenagers expressing about history. I hear students ask, “Why do we have to study these dead people?” too many times to think that a lifetime of such study would be uppermost in their minds.

I think the reasons for being a historian may not be so far from the reasons why I teach history. Perhaps that is a good place to start talking about why someone would want to become a historian.

A teacher of history is probably not planning to teach future historians. If a student expresses a desire to become a historian, that would be gratifying to the teacher, but more generally, the teacher might list the following as reasons for studying and teaching history:

  1. To understand why people think the way they do
  2. To understand why people behave the way they do
  3. To determine how people might behave

These goals relate to the reason history and social studies are taught at all; that is, to help students become more responsible and knowledgeable citizens. But they also might help to explain why a person might want to become a historian.

Those who become historians are obviously interested in people. They are concerned with what motivates people, with what causes them to choose their behavior, with what caused them to create the social world in which they live. But beyond these interests, they are also fascinated with the stories around which these social forces and circumstances are developed. Unlike social scientists, who are also interested in human behavior, historians are nosy about the individual lives, places, intrigues, conflicts, loves, and passions of people. They want to re-create, fully and truthfully, what happened in the past in an attempt to reach a clear understanding.

Historians act as detectives who then try to interpret facts. They analyze information to explain why events happened the way they did (and in so doing, shed light as to why we behave the way we do). Historians also act as philosophers who pass judgment on what was successful and good from what has been a failing and bad in the past.

History is helpful in understanding our world. It is also helpful in explaining to nonhistorians why our world is the way it is. Good historians tell a good story. They paint with words a world that no longer exists, but which was similar enough to our world to allow a reader of any age to relate to it. Historians provide metaphors and analogies based on reconstruction, so the past becomes both meaningful and useful.

A word of caution to those who think history should be their career choice. If you are looking for easy answers to important questions, then history is not a good choice. To be a historian is to be engaged in endless discussion and debate. History changes; that is, what we think happened, what we think is important, what we think the reasons are for what happened, and what we base our beliefs of good and bad on, all change. A historian adopts a moving target, one that will not allow itself to be tied down to a set of perceptions and conclusions. It offers the historian, at times, both frustration and fascination. We write the history we need, not the history we would like, necessarily, but the history that will give us the knowledge to deal with the challenges of our day. Identifying and defining the questions that are suitable for our needs are among two of the most important tasks historians perform.

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