Sarah and James Bowdoin Day 2011 Address: Carol Berkin

Story posted October 28, 2011

"What History Is — and What it is Not"
Carol Berkin

Bowdoin College's 2011 Sarah and James Bowdoin Day ceremony was held Friday, October 28, 2011, in Morrell Gymnasium. Following is the address by Carol Berkin, Presidential Professor of American Colonial and Revolutionary History at Baruch College.

Carol Berkin200.jpg
Carol Berkin

In 2005, I began one of those exhausting book tours that publishers send you on to advertise your latest work.  Along the way, I dutifully delivered an enthusiasm filled talk on Revolutionary Mothers to the dozen people gathered at the Barnes and Noble “Author’s Event,” despite the fact that two of the audience seemed to be homeless men, eager to be out of the cold and at least one of them slept soundly through my presentation. At more successful events, I signed hundreds of copies of my book, including one that was hurled back in my face by an irate woman whose name I had misspelled.

This book tour, like those that followed, left me a good deal of time to consider why a reasonably sane person chooses to become an historian. Sitting in airports, waiting for delayed flights, and shivering on overly cold Amtrak Acela trains, I found myself jotting down what I considered to be the real appeal of my profession. Today, I want to share my insights. I offer them with some humor yet with full recognition that they contain many grains of truth:


  1. Historians are more comfortable with the dead than the living. Now this is true to varying degrees—and at different times in our lives. For example, research on my book Revolutionary Mothers coincided with my children’s tumultuous teenage years, when dealing with dead people—people who did not, and could not talk back to me or storm out of the room and slam several doors behind them—was enormously comforting.

  2. Historians are nosey. We enjoy reading other people’s mail. Exalted though we claim our research to be, the fact is that rifling through other people’s personal correspondence, not to mention their diaries, without guilt, never loses its appeal.

  3. Studying the past, becoming intimate with its people and events, its smells and sounds and tastes, is the closest thing to time travel that our generation can achieve, unless of course we accept television psychics’ claim to channeling the dead or believe that The Twilight Zone is a reality show.

  4. Historians like to tell stories. Had we lived in earlier centuries and been able to carry a tune, many of us would undoubtedly have been troubadours. If we are blessed, however, we turn out to have the knack for relating tales of adventure and daring, human foibles and achievements, not to mention tales of romance, revenge, murder and mystery.

  5. We are contrary souls who revel in complicating all accounts of events and challenging all accepted wisdom about the past. We relish proving that the past, no more than the present, can ever be fully or simply understood, and enjoy pointing out the role of serendipity in explaining major events and developments in our past.

  6. Historians do not become rich by practicing their craft. And, with some few exceptions like David McCullough or Shelby Foote, we rarely become famous—although I was once recognized in a discount shoe store by a young woman who had seen me on the History Channel.

What historians like me do become, however, is women and men with a sense of satisfaction in pursuing careers that so perfectly suit our inclinations, our aspirations, and our values. And this brings me to another anecdote, and a serious one at that.

At the end of many semesters, a student will come up to me and ask “Professor Berkin, you seem kinda smart—why do you do this for a living?” The young man or woman means no offense—and I take none. Most of my students are newly arrived immigrants and the majority are first generation college students.  They come from struggling families who crowd together in small apartments in the many ethnic neighborhoods of New York City. For them, and for their parents, college means the path to a higher standard of living; and this explains why 94% of our undergraduates are business majors and why to them, the measure of success, is money.

I do not look down on their single-minded pursuit of financial security. Nor do I try to persuade them that a degree in history — or any of the liberal arts — is more satisfying. I grew up in a household in which appliances like the refrigerator were sometimes repossessed and eating by candlelight meant an electric bill unpaid, not a romantic evening. I know what it means to want a steady paycheck, medical insurance, and a pension — no matter how little of it remains these days!

But, I always feel I owe these students an answer to their question, for they are sincerely bewildered by my choice of an occupation that pays far less than writing ditties about bath soap or mayonnaise. My answer has always been: I am endlessly curious about human experience. Most of them understand. It is not the path they will take, but they understand why I have taken it.

I do not attempt to persuade them to follow the same path; and I  have not been asked here to persuade you either. Nor have I been asked here to defend my choice. I am here only to explain why history holds such an appeal to me that I have chosen it over professions that insure greater wealth, more prestige in the wider American world, and, above all, why it has sustained my interest for over many years of research, teaching, and writing. There is of course a hidden agenda, and it is this: I hope to encourage you to choose a life career that promises the same sustained intellectual satisfaction that I have found in mine.

How did I come to be an historian? It is not as if, when I was seven years old, I told inquiring grown-ups “Yes, Ma’am, I know just what I want to be when I grow up: a colonial historian.” But perhaps there were early signs. Through much of my childhood, my head was buried in fairy tale books, novels, and science fiction—stories of the fantastic and the romantic, of long agos and yet to bes. But as I grew older I made two important discoveries: first, that I found the lives of real people even more interesting than the lives of imaginary ones, for no omnipotent author shaped those lives — instead, these lives were shaped by the individuals themselves as they struggled to make choices in circumstances never entirely of their own choosing. Secondly, I realized that history held out that promise of time travel I craved, not through the time portals and worm holes of science fiction, but through research that allowed me to reconstruct segments of the past.

There are, of course, other disciplines that undertake explorations of human capacity, human desires, human folly and wisdom, human achievement and failure. I do not argue that history is the only route to understanding human society and I do not insist that you give it pride of place within the humanities. I only make a case for its value — and in doing so, hope to explain its sustained appeal to me.

Ironically, I think I can do this best by refuting some of the misconceptions about History.

First, history is not bunk. To suggest that the past is useless — or “bunk” — is to fail to understand that knowing how we got where we are is vital to deciding where we want to go in the future. Let me be clear: history does not provide the blueprint for how to get where we want to go — but it is essential to understanding where we are at this moment, how we got here, and why we are here, in order to plan a future. It is the work of psychologists to examine the paralyzing effect of individual amnesia; it is the work of historians to examine the dangers of social amnesia. A solid knowledge of our past is the best armor against the myths, the half-truths, and the outright lies that appear in political rhetoric, that justify political and social agendas, and that shape cultural norms.

But the study of history is more than protective; it is liberating. It allows us to see that very few things in human society are ‘inevitable,’ or ‘natural’ — that the values, norms, assumptions, and ideological frameworks that anchor a society are historically constructed, that they are products of human decisions and choices not forces of nature, fate or divine decree. Thus they can be changed, revised, rejected or confirmed by the women and men of every generation. History is Bunk is a motto suited only to charlatans, tyrants and those who are willing to blindly follow others.

Secondly, history does not repeat itself. To study history is to study the particular and the unique. History rests squarely upon the axes of time and place — it asks what happened at this particular moment, in this particular place and it recognizes that no moment is exactly like another, no set of circumstances is ever the same. Every choice creates a new present; every decision generates new expectations and new circumstances. There may well be universal desires — peace, freedom, fame, power, love — but the material reality and the ideological framework in which these are defined and understood and pursued are always different, always ever-changing. Even if those differences seem small to us, they exist. This is why an historian never tires of her exploration of the past — it is always full of surprises; its twists and turns are as interesting as those in the best mystery novel you will ever read and every theatrical drama you will ever see.

Third, history is not one damn thing after another. It is not a collection of ‘factoids.’ Despite all the standardized exams you have suffered through, despite all the bubble tests bureaucrats can create and all the short answer quizzes for-profit educational organizations can generate, history is primarily about “why” not about ‘what”.  Asking why leads you to an understanding of when and where; memorizing dates and random facts is no more the route to reconstructing the past than memorizing a French dictionary will insure that you can speak French like a Parisian.

Fourth, history is not what Mel Gibson movies portray it to be. No matter what movies like The Patriot try to tell you, people in the past are not just like us but in different clothes and with different hair-dos. The past, as a wise historian once put it, “is a foreign country” peopled by women and men whose reality differs dramatically from our own. For instance, A 17th-century colonial Virginian with a life expectancy of 39 or 40 does not daydream about his or her retirement as a 21st-century student with a life expectancy of 90 or 100 does. An 18th-century American, for whom travel from Savannah to Philadelphia means a horseback ride of two or three weeks, whose communication options are letters that can take an equal number of weeks to travel between these two cities, has a very different perception of time than a student at Bowdoin who can fly from Portland to L.A. in six hours or text a friend in Shanghai and get an answer before I pause for breath in this talk. I assure you that an 18th-century planter like Gibson pretended to be would not wait years to fall in love again before remarrying. “What’s love got to do with it” may have been a Tina Turner hit, but it was also a question any 18th-century man or woman might have reasonable asked about marriage. Any sensible widower in Gibson’s position would have remarried within months of his wife’s death, for every household required a woman who knew the “mysteries of housewifery” — those complicated domestic tasks of household production and child care passed on from mother to daughter. Only someone who cared deeply — and exclusively — about fashion or hair styles would be curious about a past in which women and men thought, felt, and acted as we do in the present.

The challenges I have posed to these myths hold some of the answer to why reconstructing the past remains as exciting and as daunting to me now as it did when I wrote my first college history paper. But there are others that fall, I suppose, under the rubric “An historians work is never done.” For any reconstruction we do, no matter how painstakingly researched or how brilliantly examined, is never perfect, never final. Like a jigsaw puzzle with pieces missing, we can never claim to have the complete picture. New evidence always appears, new analytic tools emerge, new interpretations arise to challenge older ones we once held. Events in our own lifetime reshape the questions we ask and the subjects we decide are important. The players in the past grow in number — in recent years, social history reminded us that “dead white men” are not history’s only players; all people, powerful or no, have the agency, the ability, to shape their futures — and in doing so, shape ours.

Finally, understanding how we got to where we are remains a challenge because history is not a march of rational decision-making; it is not a straight line from here to there. It is filled with serendipity. It is fueled by irrationality and emotion. In the end, it is the host of unexpected consequences that arise from every action that moves the past on its crooked path to the present.

And it is because of all this, that I happily began work on a new book this year.

I hope that you, like me, find a vocation that is also your avocation, your calling, your source of renewed enthusiasm, and yes, of sheer delight. And, if it happens to be the study of history, be sure to give me a call and let me know.

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