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An Interview With a Young Historian

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An Interview with a Current Law School Student who was a History Major in College:

David Helfenbein: You don't have a Ph.D. but you did major in history in college. You have never written a book on history. Some authors or professors might not like the term "historian" being associated with you. What, then, would make you a historian?

Student: My favorite professor always said that a historian is someone who thinks about the past and that is something that I have been doing for a long time, before, during and since college.

David Helfenbein: Fair enough. Then thinking about the past, what is the most important or significant period to you in American history?

Student: That's an impossible question to answer, but I'd have to say it would be the late-Civil War and the aftermath of the Civil War because everything that we recognize as modern and American can be traced back to the Civil War. The second most important period has to be the 1930s and into the Second World War; the combination of the New Deal and our involvement in World War II is significant because those legacies represent the America that is most familiar to us today: a vigorous debate over the role of government in the economy and our involvement in the world as a global super power. This is taking the founding of our nation out of the equation -- which is just as fundamental obviously.

The nation's founding and the Civil War are kind of like a chicken and an egg. It is obvious that the Civil War and our entire country are not possible without the founding and the ratification of the Constitution. Yet, the greatness of our country and the things that we celebrate the most and some of the things that the founders severely erred in were fixed, to a large degree, with the Civil War, and Abraham Lincoln's reframing. It is almost as if you cannot have one without the other. We tend to look at the past through the prism of the present and the greatness of the country continues to bolster the founder's legacy. However, one of the key reasons why the present is great is because of the changes that we made during and after the Civil War.

David Helfenbein: To you, what represents the most significant date in American history?

Student: July 4, 1863.

David Helfenbein: Why?

Student: That was when the North won at Gettysburg and Vicksburg and it was inevitable that the North would win the Civil War and included in that [was] the lead-up to President Lincoln's Gettysburg Address. Of course, again, you have a chicken and egg problem, because you cannot ignore July 4, 1776 (the date the Declaration of Independence was adopted) and September 17, 1787 (when the Constitutional Convention had finished its work). You cannot take these two dates out of the equation. But I have a bias: I love the Civil War period and I love Abraham Lincoln.

David Helfenbein: Any advice to incoming college students who might be interested in studying history?

Student: I would say to not be concerned about claims that history won't help you practically and in your pursuit of a career. I know many people from all sorts of careers who were history majors and I think the way that one thinks as an historian is applicable to all types of human endeavors and is really a useful way of thinking about human events.

David Helfenbein: You are now studying the law. How do you think your study of history has helped you in law school?

Student: I am most interested in Constitutional Law and it's obvious that the political history of our country is inseparable from that topic, however, in all sorts of other classes, and other contexts ... case law is tied to the context of our society at the time. Much of what we learn in law school is the product of that evolution and the knowledge of history is greatly helpful in appreciating the context in which the law evolved.

David Helfenbein: Last question: my grandmother, Shirley, always asks me, "what if?" as in "What if Kennedy hadn't been killed?" Do historians ask these types of questions, and if so, for what purpose do they serve?

Student: That's a great question. I once saw a book that I believe was called 'The What Ifs of American History" and I didn't think much of it at the time because it didn't include essays by some of those big name historians I had heard of before; it seemed like a work of sheer popular history. However, I remember reading something in the introduction to the effect [of], that even though this type of history isn't academic in the strictest sense, it's a form of thinking that all historians employ, to one degree or another, whenever writing history.

My favorite professor has often said that history is not a science: you cannot run experiments; you cannot control certain variables and rerun events. However, there are comparisons and there is comparative history. And by comparing, we can glean insights. Further, the process through which most historians go I would say is roughly to craft a thesis or a narrative based on a large field of data and other evidence and their own background reading and research.

The historian sits down with this vast field of facts, which is problematic because the historian often chooses which facts are important. Still, there are facts and a historian has many at his or her disposal and must choose which are important and how to arrange them into a coherent narrative, usually with some sort of argument. In that sense, the historian is trying to say something important about an historical event, and usually the way of saying this is to say that something has changed, something has evolved or emerged. And this process of building a narrative or an argument, or both, involves a certain level of imagination. The historian isn't necessarily asking 'what if,' but the historian is in some sense a storyteller and that process of imagining is a seldom discussed but crucial aspect of the historian's work.

David Helfenbein: Thank you for your time.

David Helfenbein has also posted this blog posting on his site, http://www.TheBeanPredicts.com, under his blog, The Bean Blog.