During my senior year of high school, the first question any adult would ask me was, “Where are you going to college?”
After I announced to him or her that I would be attending Yale, he or she would quickly follow up that query with, “What will your major be?” When I answered that I was planning on majoring in history, the questioner typically snickered, as if I would be wasting my time, and ended the extremely awkward exchange with, “Why history?”
Indeed, why history? To me, simply put, history has always been fascinating. In elementary school, while other students were already subscribing to the popular refrain of “history is boring,” I gleefully learned about the differences between the Pilgrims and the Virginians and puzzled over what had happened to Roanoke.
As I grew older, and the questions grew more complex, I still found it exciting to learn about the way things once were. Now the study of history took on a more important meaning, one summed up in a Robert Penn Warren quote, “The past is a rebuke to the present.” Warren’s quote answers those naysayers in high school who wondered why I would possibly want to major in history.
While it may seem like a truism, the past and the present are intricately connected, with the past serving to direct the course of the present. It is up to historians to try to untangle these important connections.
Yale students have long played a substantial role in the study of history. Individual history courses were introduced to the Yale curriculum well over 200 years ago, in the 1760s.
The Yale History Department’s Web site reports that history “became the largest major in the 1950s… and undergraduate history courses draw between 4000 and 5000 enrollments each year.” Yale’s history professors are, as noted on the department Web site, “among the most eminent in the world.”
Clearly, then, the study of history is flourishing at Yale. However, more resources could always be available. No matter how welcoming the professor may be, students in large lecture courses may have trouble getting to know him or her. Even seminars are often circumscribed by syllabi, leaving students unable to ask all of their questions.
How can students of history find a setting in which they can join in a dialogue with professors and fellow history lovers about a wide variety of topics, ranging from trends in historical study to especially interesting details of a professor’s work to why understanding history is so crucial?
Students will be able to discuss topics such as these and more by participating in Phi Alpha Theta, Yale’s History Honor Society. Phi Alpha Theta was established in 1921 at the University of Arkansas and has since grown to include 839 chapters at universities in all fifty states.
The national mission statement asserts that the society’s goal “is to promote the study of history through the encouragement of research, good teaching, publication and the exchange of learning and ideas among historians.”
To achieve that end, this year Phi Alpha Theta is establishing a series of lunches with history professors. Always wanted to ask that expert on Vietnam how the U.S. experience in Iraq compares with the war in Vietnam? Ever wished you could find out why social history is so important? Wondered what it’s like to spend a year in France or Spain reading original manuscripts and researching medieval history?
If these are the types of questions you’ve wanted to discuss with your professors but have never gotten the chance, come to Phi Alpha Theta. In addition to the lunches, members will receive a year subscription to The Historian, Phi Alpha Theta’s national journal which includes papers submitted by professors and students.
Which professors would you like to meet? Phi Alpha Theta will hold its organizational meeting on Thursday, October 11 at 7:30 p.m. in the Saybrook-Branford Room. At the meeting, we’ll listen to any suggestions you may have about which professors you’d like to see at lunch.
In the past, Yale’s chapter of Phi Alpha Theta has alternated between periods of activity and dormancy. Hopefully, beginning this year, we will permanently change that trend and create a community of students of history.
Whether history interests you because, like me, you simply find it fascinating, or because you want to learn more about how “the past rebukes the present,” Phi Alpha Theta delivers.
Ben Tannen is a junior in Saybrook College.