Dylan Jones sits down with Jewell’s history professors.
History is simply defined as the study of the past and how it influences the future. William Jewell College’s History Department gives its students a chance to think critically about how past events shape events in the present day. Three of the history professors are Dr. Reynolds, the department chair whose areas of expertise include 18th-19th century British history; Dr. Howell, who specializes in WWII, the Middle East and religion in America; and Dr. Woodruff, who teaches ancient, medieval and world history, as well as courses in Greek and Latin. I sat down with each of the three professors to expore what it truly means to be a historian.
In your opinion, what does it mean to study history?
“It takes us out of ourselves and helps us understand others. It means to be willing to accept someone else’s point of view, whether you agree with them or not, whether you like them or not. It links reading and writing for a well-educated individual. It is such a broad topic, it can interest anyone and it is fun.”
“There is a long answer, but the short answer is that we do it to understand ourselves and how the world we inhabit came to be. Without it, we are like a person who has total memory loss and is utterly clueless.”
“Since later peoples looked back on and either admired or abhorred earlier peoples’ histories, they often shaped their institutions or actions based on this. In the case of Roman history, for example, the “founding fathers” of American / U.S. History were classically educated men. So, when they organized the new republic’s government (and the very word “republic” is Latin and was one of the terms used by the Romans for their state), they not only modeled certain of our institutions on the Romans (e.g., the Senate), but they also integrated Roman political theory into our governmental structure (e.g., ‘checks and balances’). It is appropriately humbling for Americans to realize we didn’t always ‘invent the wheel.’”
In your opinion, what does it mean to be a historian?
“It means trying to understand a different way of thinking and living; it is about understanding change and appreciating past societies/people and their ways of living.”
“To have the responsibility to preserve that which is worth remembering, to discover what causes have most influenced human development and to inform present generations of these things so that they can better understand themselves and the world we live in.”
“‘History’ is ‘story’, specifically the human story. As a historian, I get to investigate the human story, sometimes on my own or with professional colleagues and sometimes with students; in any of these ways, the investigation can be both fun and useful, because I then get to share, orally or in writing, the results of the investigation with colleagues and future students. Everyone’s knowledge is enhanced, as is—hopefully—their sense of what the results of past events, or story, might mean for their own future actions and behaviors. This is, of course, exactly what the word history really means. Coined by Herodotus of Halicarnassos, called ‘the father of history,’ the word history was defined as ‘the publication of researches, to the end that neither men’s deeds may fade with time, nor the great and marvelous works shown forth . . . remain unsung.’ ‘Story’ helps us remember what is valuable for us to remember, and helps us figure out the best way to act.”
When did you first become interested in history as a discipline?
“I had an eighth grade history teacher. My father was very interested in history. My undergrad advisor moved me to the next level. It was not until I went to college where teaching at that level became evident to me as a career option.”
“Right after I won a state contest in history without even studying for it and discovered that to be a chemical engineer I had to learn calculus.”
I admit that I didn’t always love history: just a bunch of names and dates, I used to think. (And my father loved history, still does at age 103! So, as part of my ‘teenage rebellion’ I took all my elective classes in other areas.) But when I began taking Latin classes in college, I discovered that I needed more of a historical basis for the literature we were reading to understand it more fully. So I began taking Roman history classes, and then I got absolutely hooked on the ancient world. More history classes and more languages! They’re inseparable to me now, which is why both my M.A. and my Ph.D. are interdisciplinary.
In addition to the three above questions I asked each professor a specific question pertaining to their field of expertise.
One of your areas of expertise is 18-19th century Britain concerning the British Police. What interests you about that subject or time period?
“It brings in intellectual history. In a sense, it is remote enough to be different. It is part of our heritage, it is familiar. It is where issues of politics and the power of the state come in contact with people’s lives, a frontier between social and political history. To think what are the best ways to prevent crime, [it was a time period when] Britain was going through a lot of change.”
One of the classes that you teach is WWII & the Holocaust. In your opinion, what do we learn from studying that era in history?
“That wars may be necessary but never good, that the crucible of conflict brings hard decisions as well as the best and worst of humanity, and that there are depths of human depravity that are beyond conception.”
A class you teach is HIS 202: The Roman World, as well as classes on ancient and medieval history. Why should we choose to study that era of history?
“The past provides the only solid foundation for seeing and creating the future. For example, when Jefferson, Adams, et al. were devising not only the specific institutions for the new republic, like the Senate, but also the guiding principles under which it needed to operate, like ways of avoiding autocracy or military dictatorship, they looked to the Roman republic: its institutions, its guiding principles, and, in short, what worked and what didn’t, then implemented the successful institutions and principles typically modified somewhat in the U.S. constitution. Similarly, in medieval Europe, we can see the process in which ‘kingdoms’ became nations’, and the reasons why these movements happened and what the results were, and thus judge whether the movement was a good thing or a bad thing for human society. In sum, we need to know where we’ve been before we can plot a course to the future. And, where we Western Europeans and Americans most specifically, have been starts with the classical Greeks and Romans, and their political and cultural successors in Europe.”
If you could do it all over again, would you still become a history professor?
Reynolds: “Yes. It’s part of who I am. If I had the choice, it is what I want to do and who I want to be.”
Howell: “Absolutely. I still have fun every class, I still read history for pleasure, and it was a whole lot easier than calculus.”
Woodruff: “Probably. Certainly, I cannot imagine not immersing myself in the ancient world and its history and languages. But I might investigate different areas of specialization. Underwater archaeology sounds pretty appealing, for example!”