Monday, April 16, 2012

Why I Majored in History...

"History will be kind to me, for I intend to write it." -Winston Churchill

I've started this post about three times. And every single time I go through and erase everything that I've written and stare at the Churchill quote again. I won't lie to you, I tried to find one from Doctor Who, but I couldn't find one that I liked well enough. And Churchill? He's my hero. And only partly because he's famous for saying wonderfully snarky things.

This is the thing about being a humanities major: you know from the get go that you're never going to make any money at it. At least if you're smart, you know you're never going to make any money. That's not why you do it. This isn't business school. If you're a true blue history major, you've had more than one person try to take you aside and tell you how worthless your life goals are. Try to talk you into doing something more sensible, like getting your MBA because you're good at analyzing or becoming an elementary school teacher because you're great with kids. While I firmly believe that I would be good at both of those things (both of which are worthwhile goals to pursue), I'm not passionate about product distribution or dividing fractions.

"Don't ask what the world needs. Ask what makes you come alive, and go do it. Because what the world needs is more people who have come alive." -Howard Thurman

What these well meaning people don't seem to understand is that just because you're talented in a particular area, doesn't mean that's what makes you come alive. And what, may I ask, is the point of spending your entire life doing something that you don't really love?  There isn't one. It's a silly and narrow minded way to view the world. I majored in history because every single time I sat down in one of my classes, I was thrilled at the idea of reading, learning, and absorbing everything that the professor had to offer. I always tell my students at the tutoring center that history is really about people. People just like them. Sure, you have to remember their names and a whole list of dates on which they did all kinds of random things, but if you really look at history for what it is, you see a story. It's someone who lived their life in such a way that you are forever changed by their choices, good or bad.

"It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.  Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope." -Bobby Kennedy

I majored in history because someone needs to remember them. Who are 'they', you ask? They are anyone. They are infantry soldiers who slogged through the jungles of Vietnam, unnamed women who marched in the streets of New York City demanding the right to vote, immigrants who lived in the poorest conditions you could imagine, mothers who raised their children alone after their husbands were killed defending their country, ordinary people who went about their quiet lives. These people deserve all of the respect that history has to offer them, yet their stories are so often discounted as being 'boring' or 'useless' in the 'real' world. 

"History is our guide to navigation in these perilous times. History is who we are and why we are the way we are." - David McCullough

Last year I was lucky enough to be part of a seminar focused on the Holocaust taught by my favorite professor at the U, Ronald Smelser. If you ever have the chance to take a German history or World War II focused class from this man, run, don't walk. He's amazing. During the course of the class, we discussed the idea that as the termination of the Jewish race grew more prevalent in Hitler's Germany, that very few people stepped in to help or stop the Nazis. It wasn't the focus of the class, but it became my focus as I wrote my final paper. The last paper I would ever write as an undergraduate history major. The more I thought about those people and what they sacrificed, the more I realized that they are why I spent so many years pouring over dusty old books and memorizing dates. It's because these people, whoever they may be, deserve to have someone willing to search for them and their stories. Many of these good men and women suffered and died along with the very people they were trying to help. Their efforts mean so much more than their numbers, because they have permanently and vividly colored the pages of the story of human kind with something redeeming. And all at once it came to me, the real reason that I picked a major that seems completely useless and absolutely senseless to so many people: I studied history because it taught me who I was and where I came from. I studied history because I love learning about people. I studied history because without it you have no math, no engineering, no science. I studied history because the past is prologue. The past teaches us what to repeat and what to stay far away from. I studied history because the world needs all kinds of people to help it run. I studied history because it made me come alive. 

 I studied history because I believe that everyone deserves to be remembered. 

11 comments:

Jessica and Reece said...

You are fantastic. If I could go back and do it all over again, I would be a history major too...

Kathy said...

I hope you're thinking about sharing your love by teaching history. You could become that professor that inspires her students.

Emily said...

I concur with Kathy. You rock.

Cyd B. said...

Okay, I love this and it's beautiful and the quotes are amazing - AND I more fully understand now why you love Doctor Who! The whole 'Tennant Factor' aside, 'there are no ordinary people'!

You're fabulous.

Amy said...

"the world needs people who have come alive" I'm putting that quote on my wall. I'm not even kidding i LOVE it. And I love you! And I'm glad history makes you come alive. And I hope you're wrong about making any money.... although I'd rather be poor and happy....

Liz said...

Preach it sister! I studied history because I love the stories and learning the context of those stories and because I loved the idea that we are from circumstances that predate us and in order to better understand ourselves, we must study our history to see where we've come from. AND I studied history with you so it was even better! Smelser for life!

Malinda said...

Oh Mecham can I just say I freaking love you! I studied English Literature because I love reading what people write, even if it is written in Middle English and it gives you a headache trying to understand the beauty of the language. Hidden in their words and their stories are clues about how they lived and what was truly important to them--thus why I read Beowulf over and over again. As far as not making any money...well I plan on marrying money!

Amera said...

hey, i don't use any of my three degrees either so high five!

Baby Sister said...

And...I couldn't have put that better myself. Muy bien hecho.

Amanda said...

So I can't even tell you how much I loved this blog post! It is all so true! I studied history because I wanted to know about people and how they created our world today! I can't even count the times people told me how worthless my major was and I would just laugh every time and say while they're repeating history I will be making history for the next generation!
Love your blog Mal!

AudiAudi said...

I majored in Mechanical Engineering and work as a manufacturing engineer. During my undergraduate, I took a few history courses and they were my favorite classes! I enjoy hearing and reading about stories of the past--who wouldn't? Why wouldn't anyone be interested in the events that led to the type of country that they reside in today.

I work full-time now and always have plenty of time to read more history books, look up more historical information online; it is all very interesting to me.

But If I could go back to my freshmen year in University, I still would have Mechanical Engineering as my major. Why? I live comfortably. I make a lot of money to entertain my hobbies.

I see History as a hobby....not a career. I can't imagine affording my current lifestyle if I had majored in History! This is perhaps why I can't understand why people are majoring in History only because they love knowing about it. There are plenty of resources to read about history on your own. It does not make much sense to me as a smart career path.

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