Saturday, June 1, 2013

How Do You Become a Historian?

Chris Gehrz recently had to answer this question for a group of 8th grade history students.  The experience, he writes, "got me rethinking the very definition of 'historian.'"

You should read the entire post, but here is a taste to whet your appetite:

...And this has implications for what I do in higher education. While we’ll produce some number of professional historians (mostly junior high and high school social studies teachers, plus some who work in museums and archives and a very few who teach in universities), I think our department is better off focusing on preparing future businesspeople, lawyers, nurses, pastors, parents, church members, consumers, and voters to do two things: 

To think historically, of course — to ask good questions about the present and how it emerged from the past, and, as appropriate, to seek answers by locating, evaluating, analyzing, and synthesizing historical evidence. But still more, to love history. 

I’ve yet to meet a college History major who didn’t choose that path because she had some inexplicable passion for studying the past and hungered to do it more. It’s easy to feed that desire in college, when you are paying for the opportunity to spend hours and hours each week making sense of the past under the guidance of professionals with a similar passion. But how do our alumni sustain their love for history when it’s no longer a discipline practiced in the relative freedom and leisure of college, and has to compete with many other pressing demands on their time? Here I hope that even as they think historically to answer contemporary questions, they remember that the past is a foreign country — fundamentally different from our own, and worth visiting for its own sake. I hope that they read books, watch films, and visit museums and other sites for the sheer joy of encountering the past. That is to say, I hope that they practice history “at whim,” to use Alan Jacobs’ more general advice about reading.