Throughout my childhood and young adulthood, I was raised in a very religious home. We went to church at least twice a week, and participation was mandatory rather than encouraged. I went to a religious school, and had only religious friends – only of a particular type of religion, that is. Secular music, books, television and movies were either forbidden outright or accepted in small, limited doses. To say I was sheltered would be an understatement of epic proportions. Once I had moved out of the house, however, and had my first taste of college education, I gradually began to realize that I could no longer accept that a lot of things I were taught to be absolutely true were accurate – and if they were accurate, they couldn’t exactly be demonstrated. While there were many reasons for this realization, one of the big ones was religion’s ambiguity. Too much seemed open to interpretation or bias. By a twist of ironic fate, my one true educational passion – the study of history – is strikingly similar in many ways. It is also impossible to study a lot of history without studying the religious context that surrounded it. Studying religion and studying history very much go hand in hand – especially in the concentration of European history where politics and religion were so entwined that it’s practically impossible to separate one from the other.
Studying history is all about analysis and probabilities. What sources are you using? Are your sources biased for or against what they’re talking about? How close to the events that they’re relaying are they writing? Do other bodies of work from a similar time relay the same information, or do they differ in significant ways? History, in that sense is a big mystery – and I’ve always had a fondness for mysteries (thanks, in large part, to my grandmother who watched Murder, She Wrote with me as far back as I can remember). History is a giant puzzle where the pieces move, and sometimes they lie. And I love every moment of it – even when it’s frustrating and confusing and difficult. Needless to say, the further back in time you study, the more difficult it is to pin down facts and the more you have to piece together varying pieces of information in a way that they make the most sense and have the most consistent corroboration – simultaneously recognizing that there is going to be less information available.
The study of history also varies significantly by education level. This has nothing to do with how much education you have, but where you actively participate in historical classes. In elementary school you are taught a white-washed version of pivotal historical events without the often bloody, tragic or horrific context that surrounds it. You learn bits and pieces without ever being able to connect the dots. In high school, however, you gain more context but the majority of history classes you have to take are taught by memorization. You learn names, dates and events around the world but you’re so busy memorizing events that you have very little opportunity to dive into the deeper issues. In college, conversely, you are taught the context of history, and you’re taught the tools necessary to place historical events in their proper context, analyze sources, think critically about those sources and place them in a reasonable frame of reference for how they influence the time and place they were in. The more I learn about history, the less I think I know. When preparing for a research project for practically any term, there’s a process of elimination and concentration required before I can ever begin on the writing aspect. First, you have to identify a person, a place or an event within the context allowed by the project. Then you have to narrow it down to a manageable chunk. And rarely, if ever, do you end up writing about what you thought you would be writing about when you first started out. You learn how to make historical arguments and you learn how to defend them. You begin to learn the process of peer review as you analyze your fellow student’s work. You interact on a higher level with your professors, regardless of whether you’re attending classes in person or on line. You learn not only the value of asking questions, but also which questions to ask. Your gaze becomes focused while still maintaining the ability to see the big picture – and if, like me, you’re majoring in history, you make valuable connections in the field that can be useful moving forward as other opportunities and possibilities open up.
History has so many intricacies and avenues open to exploration, regardless of time period or specialization. No matter what topic you start researching, there are a myriad of avenues that open up the deeper into the topic you get. Each one of those avenues has the potential to lead you down a rabbit hole of other directions. One of the things I love about the subject so much is that no matter how much you learn, there is so much more out there – and while you can specialize in an area of history that interests you the most, it is absolutely impossible for any one person to know it all – and even as a specialist, it is almost guaranteed that another specialist in the field will disagree with a particular interpretation of events, and a whole new potential for dialogue can open up.
Far from getting sick of it, my interest in history has only deepened the more I study it. Although the manner of learning has evolved over time, my appreciation for it has deepened exponentially. And while I’m still learning tools and techniques that I will have to put into practice both now and in the future, I’m greatly looking forward to the outcome.