Published Date

January 1, 1996

From Why Become a Historian? (1996)

National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution

It is easy to overlook the importance of history. If we think of it as a matter of memorizing a long list of dates or the causes of events like the Civil War, its importance is harder to understand. If we think about history as a way of shaping how people understand themselves and the society in which they live, its importance becomes more obvious. Why we dress the way we do, why we speak in a certain way, and why we celebrate particular holidays, all are influenced by events that took place in the past.

How and why groups within society respond to these influences is what historians are interested in discovering. The answers to these questions are never straightforward, nor is there always just one correct interpretation. How historians look at the available information and piece it together affects the final interpretations they develop. Slavery is a good example. At one time a group of influential historians considered it an overall positive experience for the slaves who were introduced to Western civilization as a consequence of their enslavement. Other historians who years later reexamined slavery did not find it such a good thing. The difference between the two interpretations was a matter of perspective and of looking at the facts in new ways. What some historians saw based on their training and their life experiences varied greatly from what other historians saw based on their view of the world.

It is because historians interpret facts and influence how people see themselves and their place in history that it is important for a wide variety of people to enter the history field. The information that appears in history books and in museums influences governmental decisions as well as how people judge other groups they may know little about.

I have chosen to become a historian because I want to show how intertwined the achievements and the lives are of all Americans. I believe that without a variety of individuals taking up this challenge the historical picture developed of this country will not reflect its diversity and richness. For me, the satisfaction comes in working toward discovering and sharing different ways of interpreting historical data. The more people willing to accept this challenge, the greater the likelihood that the interpretations offered by historians will better reflect the many different stories which are at the heart of an accurate and representative history of this country and the world.

Next essay: Natalie Zemon Davis