News

Annual Report Finds Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Remains Largely White, Male

News

Harvard Square Celebrates Oktoberfest

News

Harvard Corporation Members Donated Big to Democrats in 2020 Elections

News

City Council Candidates Propose Strategies for Supporting Low-Income Residents at Virtual Forum

News

FAS Dean Gay Hopes to Update Affiliates on Ethnic Studies Search by Semester’s End

Columns

Why I Study History

By Spencer W. Glassman, Contributing Opinion Writer
Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

I am envious of those who kept a journal throughout their childhood. They have amazing access to the full range of their past: from the quotidian to their most profound experiences. Those of us who did not keep such detailed writings about our lives are left to whatever happens to be stuck in our head. When I look back on high school and cannot recall the general events of one typical day — as opposed to the extraordinary variety — I feel that I do not know myself as I normally am. Of course, this raises the question: Are our true selves revealed at our most jubilant and despondent or at our most mundane? Memory answers a fundamental need in humans: to know oneself. Memory does not simply guide us in avoiding mistakes and making decisions in the present, but it forms us into complete beings.

Imagine what you would be if you had no memory; if the present had a monopoly on existence. One cannot exist without a past. The emptiness of a life without memory extends to the case of any group, whether it be a family, state, civilization, or the collective society of humanity. At its core, this is why we must study history, to answer “Who are we?”

I am a Jew and in many ways, Judaism is a religion of memory. There are three Jewish holidays that capture an idea of remembrance: Rosh Hashanah or Yom Hazikaron, Passover, and Shavuos. On Yom Hazikaron, the Day of Remembrance, we recall creation and judgment. Creation tells us whence we came, and judgment tells us our fate. The fact that we were created externally and not per se means that we owe ourselves to someone else, and thereby have an obligation. Our history is an imperative. On Pesach, we remember our personal exodus from Egypt, which exists in every generation, not just those who physically crossed the Red Sea. God remembered the promise he made to Abraham and all the Jewish people — in the past, present, and future — so we ought to remember the covenant we made with Him. On Shavuos, we remember receiving the present and obligation of Torah. We actively receive the Torah every day. The past occurs all of the time. Our existence is relational, not personal; covenantal, not pragmatic. We must constantly remember our duties to others, and that our relationships exist as an ongoing product of history.

History as a discipline constructs memory for each society and for all of humankind. If, as Americans, we were totally ignorant of our past, the term American would be completely meaningless. I took a class with Professor Mary Lewis on modern French history, throughout which we discussed “les lieux de mémoire” — roughly translated as “sites of memory” — as symbols, events, people, and anything else that defines what it is to be French. History is at the core of definition and being, what is fixed and what may change, what is particular and what is general. History must be a narrative. It must tell the story of humanity, but it can do so through the specific.

The final project for my class was to add a chapter to “Les Lieux de Mémoire,” a series of essays compiled by Pierre Nora which details the sites of memory that define Frenchness. That project exemplified the deliberate nature of history studied properly. We must put in the effort to remember, and at that, to remember well. We have to ask ourselves who we are, on many different levels, and seek answers where we can find them. To write about something inconsequential would have been a useless contribution to the essay collection, but the inconsequential is different from the mundane. Maybe there is a particular daily habit of the French which so differentiates them from others as to be an essential piece in the book. However, it is for the historian to evaluate this history, and see it in relation to broader questions.

The present is empty. History is the acknowledgment of both the past and the future, of the beginning and the end, and therefore of what is eternal. We must situate history as the basis of the humanities, as it articulates the covenant that makes it possible to ask: What does it mean to be human? In studying history we elevate humans from mere accidents in time and space to a group meaningful in and of themselves. We can only understand who we are and what we will be through knowing what we have been, because that which is essential about us does not change.

Spencer W. Glassman ’23-’24, an inactive Crimson Editorial editor, is a History concentrator in Leverett House. His column “A More Human Humanities” appears on alternate Fridays.

​​Have a suggestion, question, or concern for The Crimson Editorial Board? Click here.

Want to keep up with breaking news? Subscribe to our email newsletter.

Tags
Columns