When I tell people that I’m a history major I often encounter one of two reactions. The first, and certainly the most common, is usually some form of laughter accompanied by an extremely condescending set of questions involving my plans for after graduation. At other times, the person I am talking to will politely ask how I deal with remembering all the names and dates, and then go into a tirade about how much they hated history class in high school. It is perhaps because of my familiarity with these two responses that I found myself completely unprepared for, and frankly quite thrown off by, the conversation that ensued the last time I told somebody my area of study. There, in the midst of a raucous room of twenty-something year olds attempting to drink their stress away and distract themselves from the impending week of midterms; I was asked, “what does being a historian mean to you?”. Although this question is by no means as complex as it should have been to merit such a shocked response from me, it was the first time that I had ever been asked this question. And, as simple and seemingly innocent as this question was, I could not for the life of me find an answer to supply for it. I quickly excused myself under the pretext of needing a refill, and escaped the party to my room, where I sat down and really began to think.
Truthfully, there are many answers I could have provided; I could have told her it meant a lot of reading, in depth textual analysis, the ability to retain large amounts of information – hell, I could have told her just about anything. After all, it had been a light-hearted question, merely asked to avoid an awkward pause in an otherwise dull introductory conversation. But something about this question had gotten to me. I was in my fourth and final year of university, and yet I had no concrete answer to such a basic question as this one. Sitting there, alone in my room, I began to attempt to formulate an answer. Sure, there were the traditional answers that I’ve provided to countless people that have challenged my decision to study history before. That it is important to study history so that we can avoid repeating the mistakes of our past, so that we can understand how society developed into the way it is…etc. But then I stumbled upon why I hadn’t, for once, been able to provide one of these answers to that popular question. She had asked what being a historian meant to ME. So, for the first time in my life, I grabbed a pen and wrote down exactly what being a student of history meant to me. This is what I wrote.
Great men and women are remembered. But for every person remembered there are millions more that fade into obscurity. To be a historian is to be constantly faced with the mediocrity of your own existence. It is to study the greatest of humanity’s achievements, while being confronted with the insurmountable realization that you will most likely never add to them. It is to truly understand that most of us will leave this world in the same fashion that we entered it, nameless, faceless, and without having accomplished anything worthy of note.