Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Why History

I'm often asked by my "modern-world loving friends" why I study history. What's the point, why don't I do political science or something. Moreover, I'm asked, "why the middle east?" I generally deflect these questions by offering the glazed over standard answer: "Oh, I really like history," or "It's been my favorite class since the 8th grade" or "I like the teachers in my department." All this is true, and is generally the extent to which I humor my question-asker in the cocktail party setting. But as you may have noticed, I've begged the question. So let me expound on the the reason I spend so much time in the past...and in a region so remote to my own upbringing.

 First, Why History? Because it offers us the opportunity to understand that the world could have, and can, be different than it is now. History reduces the biggest decisions of all time, made by larger-than-life characters, into the specific actions of men and women. In doing so, it reveals to us the vulnerability of humanity to itself. It reminds us of the power of the individual in history, and thus the individual in the present and future.

I had this conversation once along the pathway down to Bogazici University. My friend Tyler characterized my need to constantly be reminded that the world actually does change as a direct consequence of humanity as perhaps suggestive of some deep insecurities about human power. While I don't deny this, my liking for history isn't limited to a pathological self-satisfying study of (wo)man's significance. There is much more to the practice of history that I appreciate.

History is a very nice blend of the humanities and sciences. (This is not to say that other fields, say Anthropology or Sociology are not. Actually I really like these fields, too. And draw a lot of inspiration from them). But in history, you get to look at evverryyyythinnnggg as a source. Biographies, memoirs, court records, name it! Friday, I head to Stanford's Hoover Institute to review two sets of memoirs as the "big kickoff" to my senior thesis research. I'm very excited.

Part Two, "Why the Middle East" will have to be saved for later.