Dear Dawn,

I have been thinking about this a lot lately, and I’m still having a hard time putting it into words.

You know how much I love history: always have, always will. When we met in college, I was the go-to history person in our English courses. I was the annoying one who reminded everyone constantly about historical and author context. I took joy from experiencing history exhibits, partaking in discussion about historical events, and arguing about whether one historical figure would be friends with another historical figure from a different time period.

After studying in Oxford, I loved talking about historical theory, and found ways to draw that into other academic discussion (and, frequently, regular discussion), much to the chagrin of you and my other friends. History was literally attached to everything I thought, said, did. Maybe that’s why I thought grad school was a great idea.

I wanted to be a history professor since the eleventh grade. Graduate school for history was just something that I expected of myself, and after all my adventures in undergrad it was a given. So I went on to grad school, still ranting and raving about history and historical theory, practically eating and breathing the stuff.

I even found this freewrite exercise that I did in grad school:

Why history?

History has always been a part of my life. I remember going to museums, being dragged there as a little kid, as well as touring random forts and crumbling historical building sites with my parents in an effort to give their daughter more culture. I also remember sitting at the feet of my grandparents at the lake home as they told me stories about growing up on the beach front, surviving the Depression, building a family. I was the cousin that all of the other relatives would come to during our family gatherings for the answer to “how are we related, again?” “You’re second cousins twice removed.” “Oh, right.”

I remember hating history, but somewhere along the lines something changed. I loved Greek mythology, but what were the people like if they believed such random stories? The Romans killed Jesus, I learned in Sunday School, but what all was going on in their Empire? Shakespeare wrote magnificent plays, but who was the Queen that always comes up in conversation when adults talk about him? Natural curiosity, I guess you could say, drew me into history. I wanted to know who, how, and why. I still do.

Now, when the question narrows into why I study European history, that is more fun for me to answer. I love British culture, was drawn in by the literature I read growing up, and when I was little there was nothing better than tales of knights and ladies to spark my imagination. It is important to note that in my imagined adventures, I was never a damsel in distress, but a knight in my own right who saved the kingdom. I found that by studying medieval history and the real-life stories of the figures that inspired the myths and legends, that I was able to easily configure what the dangers were for that imagined kingdom and how I could better defend it.

As I grew up, I traded make believe kingdoms for real ones: high school is a battlefield, and one’s first steps into academia are no different. Studying history, even a time period as “antiquated” as the early modern period, gave me a better grasp on why people did what they did, and how to interact with the drastically changing world around me. History gave me, and still gives me, perspective, to the point that I can start analyzing the world around me to the patterns that human nature inevitably follows.

What started off as simply me following my parents’ guidance into self-education molded into answering my own curiosity, and then into a way for me to cope with the world. That is why I studied history. And that is why, no matter if I continue professionally or not, history will always be a big part of how I view the world. For without knowing the past and how we are all connected, how are we to be expected to change the world?

That is the goal, isn’t it? No matter the field or perspective, we all want to add something, do something to change the world, even if it is simply changing the perspective of one person. History is fun for me, because I get to see how one decision is able to make a huge impact, or study why a person made the decision to the change the way they did, or how something went wrong, or how something went right. By knowing all those things—how to make a decision, why make the decision, and how to address things correctly/fix what doesn’t work—I am better equipped to take on the challenges before me in my own personal goals. And, hopefully, help those who are close to me achieve their own along the way.

So many people talk about the elusive bonuses of studying history, but rarely with much solemnity. Rarely do I believe the people who talk about such things. However, I know from my own experience that history truly is a key to the present. And that gives me hope for the future.

Finding that freewrite, reading through my passion and drive for the subject of history, it was…heartbreaking.

Why, you ask?

Because, while I still love history and still believe a lot of things about it that I did when I wrote that, I don’t feel for it. I don’t have that passion and drive for it anymore.

Imagine that: something that used to make up such a significant part of my life for so many years is more repulsive to me than exciting, more exhausting than exhilarating, makes me feel more hollow than holistic.

I am working on coming back to my subject and field, though. I actually read a history article that found its way to my email the other day and I enjoyed critiquing it, probably because I didn’t have to do so for a class I was taking or teaching or for a conversation that I was expected to be involved in. I read and critiqued it for myself, and I enjoyed it.

When I took my comprehensive exams for my Master’s, one of the professors I worked closely with told me that these exams were not meant to be scary or frightening or overwhelming, but enjoyable–a chance for us to truly immerse ourselves in history that we love and show off the way that our minds can make connections. After I took them, I understood what she meant. It was fun to write for days about something that I found so interesting and to bring in scholars that I agreed or disagreed with to illustrate my points.

I think I need to find a way to get back to that feeling, that pure joy of studying for the sake of gaining knowledge, and participating with material for the simple intention of enjoying something I love. If I don’t get back to that somehow, I will have lost something that has been so important to me for so long. I feel like, if I don’t rediscover that feeling, I’ll lose a part of myself that I never planned on misplacing.

Yours,

Wilber

 

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