You can find plenty of common, scholarly reasons to study history in textbook introductions, education philosophy books, or in the classroom on the first day of a history class. However, these were not the reasons that prompted me to declare a history major my freshman year. What motivated me was an idealism which claimed that if we could just understand history and teach it correctly, we could solve the political and cultural problems of today. After all, if history offers examples of what worked and what didn’t, then within its annals we could read morals-of-the-story to guide our response to modern events. Or at least that was what I thought. As I got into my major I realized it was not that simple and tidy. History got messy, the lines between success and failure became blurred, the causes of success and failure became even less clear, and Golden Ages I had looked to as models began to lose their gilding in large flakes. As my former aspirations to use history to fix the world began to fade, I found motivation in the satisfaction of academic work, intellectual stimulation, and the ambitions of academic success that graduate school offered, but this proved a shaky foundation for my studies.
The unexpected break in community from the Covid-19 quarantines made my rediscovery of community in the new school year all the more potent. This, alongside conversations with friends and professors about the importance of community and their experiences at graduate school, came together to make me question my academic ambitions. I began to realize the small moments spent in thoughtful conversation, in laughter, in everyday acts of service, or all at once offered more joy and satisfaction than what (for me) too often becomes the selfish activity of scholarly work. While the two are not mutually exclusive, I found that my academic ambitions tend to turn me in on myself and cause me to view my relationships in ways contrary to the sense of community I desired. Friends were temporary, pleasant distractions from my larger goals or fellow scholars who could encourage me in my endeavors but may become competitors. Far from encouraging me to grow and challenging me to go outside myself to love others, my intellectual striving often made me forget these lessons as I focused my energy and attention elsewhere. But by entering more fully into a community over the last year, I accepted a call on my life I have not been able to shake – a call not to any particular vocation but to a way of life that prioritizes loving others in tangible ways, investing time in my community, and practicing hospitality. This brought about a crisis. If my purpose was no longer intellectual stimulation and academic success, and instead my goal was community, then my motivations for studying history once again crumbled. I did not know how studying history would help me pursue a life centered around loving others.
Just as the collapse of my former motivations came through conversations and my resulting examination of my own experiences, in the same way I discovered new and truer reasons to continue in my major. In turning more toward the community I have at Hillsdale, I found new meaning and understanding in my own studies. One particular conversation took the form of two friends, one an English major alum and the other a senior music major, telling me why studying history can be so worthwhile. It was a humbling moment realizing that these friends who had devoted their time at college to other subjects had a more developed appreciation for history than I did. It was through this conversation that I received the reasons that now motivate my study of history, and through reflection on how they relate to my own experience, I made them my own.
During that conversation one friend noted that studying history can help us have a more honest relationship with reality. This phrase has stuck firmly in my mind. In examining my own experience, I have found it to be true. Studying history can, when done well, help us see the world and human experience more clearly. Then, humbled, we can turn to loving people now, in this moment and at this place, rather than seeking abstract solutions in idealized notions of the world. History is messy, and it resists our efforts to impose morals of the story. It can demand us to face our own inability to extract simple, clear, unqualified statements of meaning. History can operate like the book of Job, where too frequently we attempt to impose our own simple understanding on events, like Job’s friends, but in the end our accounts all fail to explain why things happen the way they do. Just as reading Job’s story defies the easy answers of his friends and offers instead our inability to comprehend God’s justice, an honest examination of history will challenge our simple answers and our own personal accounts, offering instead our inadequacy and a new humility. In showing the perennial nature of the complications we face today in politics, culture, and elsewhere, studying history can enable us to relate to our own time and its problems not as puzzles to be solved with the key of past experience but as ailments resulting from the human condition which is the same throughout history. With this recognition, we can turn to the task of loving our neighbors instead of trying to fix them.
As the same friend pointed out, on a more particular level, history also can enable us to break down underlying narratives which color our understanding and engagement with other people and our current time. Many people, whatever their religious or political background might be, have narratives which support their views. These narratives often offer oversimplified stories and unqualified statements of the significance of history. The reality is that we need a certain frame to make sense of all the possible historical details which we could draw from, but an honest approach to history should make us uncomfortable with a simple account of them. Studying history pushes us to make sense of the vast pool of details and events which, if simply relayed, would provide little else than chaos; yet, it can also pull us away from any single, unqualified story because all those details demand to be heard even when not included. These two are very difficult to balance, and provide another opportunity for humility by showing us how difficult it is to make sense of history.
During our conversation, my other friend pointed out the way in which history enables us to engage with a whole person. Reflecting on my own experience, I saw this element at play as well. Where other subjects may choose selected works of an author and make judgements about the quality of their art or philosophy or some other aspect of their work, history can bring us face to face with their humanity. It can allow more room to study the whole person and challenge us to recognize their humanity even in the face of beliefs we disagree with, thereby demanding compassion and understanding from us. In my own experience, studying transcendentalist thinkers in 19th century America, I realized the philosophers and crises they faced did not have easy answers, and while I disagreed with their conclusions, I was able to recognize the difficult positions which led them to adopt those ideas. While objective responses to the quality of an individual’s ideas or work is important, it is also worthwhile to face the reality that a political leader is more than the rhetoric in his speeches, a liberal theologian is more than his unorthodox theology, a slave-holder is more than their choice to participate in a morally abhorrent institution, and the list goes on. History can bring us face to face with the humanity of those it would be easier to disregard by forcing us to consider the situation that produced certain actions, rather than judging the action alone. It forces us to disagree with people as fellow human beings rather than as “others.”
About a month after our original conversation, the alum sent me an email including a quotation from Alan Jacobs’ Breaking Bread with the Dead. In this passage, Jacobs discusses studying history in the context of the concept of personal density and temporal bandwidth, a concept he got from the novel Gravity’s Rainbow by Thomas Pynchon. The passage Jacobs quotes from Gravity’s Rainbow states that personal density and temporal bandwidth are directly proportional and explains, “‘Temporal bandwidth’ is the width of your present, your now…. The more you dwell in the past and in the future, the thicker your bandwidth, the more solid your persona. But the narrower your sense of Now, the more tenuous you are. It may get to where you’re having trouble remembering what you were doing five minutes ago.” This ability to occupy a greater period of time is what allows us to engage with reality honestly, because while we can only experience and live in the present moment, that moment is informed by all that comes before it, and in a sense it exists in relation to the future. By being grounded in the past in all its complexity, imperfection, and even confusion, we are less likely to be swept up in the movements of a moment that offer simple questions and simple answers.
It was easy for me to look back at my Great Books II class and think I should have been an English major because of the specific moments of awe and the transformational ideas I found there. In looking at my experiences in the History major, I could not find those specific moments. Only through the lense of my friends’ perspectives, I realized how much my study of history had changed me, not in single moments or projects but over the course of time. Those experiences were there all along, but it took engaging in conversation with those who could see in history what I could not to eventually realize them. It was through embracing community and turning away from a solitary view of my studies that I was able to gain a deeper understanding of and appreciation for my major. These reasons for studying history are not the only reasons out there – I won’t even say they are the most important – I am not here to make that argument. Yet, these are objectively good reasons, and they are the ones which are most true to my experience and most applicable to the sort of life I want to live, a life of genuine community which requires a rejection of simplified conceptions and unqualified narratives which are incompatible with real human experience and relationships. In recognizing the perennial nature of our modern problems, whether social, cultural, religious, political, or otherwise, it has allowed me to seek solutions not in finding the key ideas or examples which would supposedly solve our problems but in the only reality which transcends these perennial problems – that of Christ’s call to communion with Him and one another.
Eliana Kernodle is a junior studying History