To Be an Historian

I have always loved studying history and reading the classics, which I began exploring in grade school. However, I now understand that most of the classics to which I was introduced were a minutiae of the ancient and classical works with which I have fallen in love over the last few years. Even when growing up, I thought reading about and studying history was important so humankind would perhaps learn from its past errors in judgement and reflect on the consequences of subsequent actions. However, too often that has not been the case. As we have witnessed throughout time, humans have not applied lessons to promote positive change. Furthermore, some took history into their own hands and cherry-picked elements that suited their personal agenda and ideals to fuel their causes that aimed to stymie equal rights and target the other(s) not like them.

I had what I call the privilege to witness and learn from the destruction left behind the various wakes of human brutality throughout my 30-year US Army/DoD career. My assignment in the Federal Republic of Germany (FRG) from mid-1988 through late 1991 was a most exciting yet tenuous time. During my tour, which was fabulous by the way, I saw the reunification of the two Germanies – the FRG and the German Democratic Republic (GDR)/Deutsche Demokratische Republik (DDR), the fall of the Berlin Wall, and withdrawal of Soviet Groups of Forces from the Eastern Front back to the east of the Ural Mountains. Families separated by the border fences and walls that divided West from East were reunited and Germany began healing, albeit slowly. While stationed in the Republic of Korea (ROK) from 1995-1996, I came to understand why we still stand in defense of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) between the ROK and Democratic Peoples Republic of Korea (DPRK) to her north. Witnessing the violent ethnic cleansing/genocide when deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina in support of Stabilization Forces (SFOR) 5/6 in 1998-1999 was a life-changing experience and drastically affected the context and manner in which I consider humankind in light of heinous atrocities inflicted on the other(s). Deployed in support of combat operations in Afghanistan (2002) and Iraq (2004, 2009, 2010/11) taught me more lessons about inequality and suffering. I consider myself fortunate to have had these experiences, and to have lived to recall them and apply their lessons.

I am ready to pursue my midlife adventure as an historian and independent scholar who wants to conduct research, apply long-practiced analytical skills, write, and teach. I know I have a lot to offer and also to learn, which is OKAY, as one should never cease learning along the continuum of life. So where does that put me within the continuum of history? Considering my concentration in ancient and classical history, one could propose a long time ago and irrelevant, which is so far from the reality of how important classics remain, now, today, in 2021 and the future. The writing…telling of history is ever-changing due to technological advances and multidisciplined, synthesized analytical methods. One must live in the present but have the agility to analyze history through a contextual lens of that time and piece together a likely scenario, which may readily apply to the present, our current modern history. History is alive and ready for the recipient.

What does it take to be an historian, and a history teacher, is a question that certainly elicits varied responses and lively discourse. I share below an excerpt from Professor Stephen Kantrowitz’s keynote address to graduating history majors at the University of Wisconsin in May 2020. Italics are as written in the editorial.

To think like a historian demands two contradictory things of us: profound humility, and overweening arrogance. Humility because we know that when we reconstruct the past, we are not actually putting the thing together as it was, not recovering a lost, eternal truth, but instead making meaning. And that’s why the arrogance: because even though we know the limitations of our knowledge, we try to tell a coherent story about the past. A story that fits the facts as we find them, that addresses the meaningful contradictions, that is frank about the absences and uncertainties without retreating into hopelessness. A story that acknowledges the limits of our knowledge and our perspective, but that does not throw up its hands.

In this way, the historian’s job is the same as that of the citizen.

“From the Editors’ Desk: Teaching History in the Time of COVID,” The American Historical Review 125, no. 3 (June 2020): xviii.

I am ready and willing…are you?

Note: For a seminal discussion of the West’s perceptions of the East, and concept of “the other” see Edward W. Said, Orientalism (1978; repr., New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1978).

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