By Michael Stelzer Jocks, History Faculty.
As we start another quarter at RMU, I as a history teacher try once again to inculcate students to the importance of historical understanding. In each of my courses I usually provide the students on the first day of class with a description of what history is, and why it matters. Simply put, I try to justify taking history courses to non-history majors.
This is old-hat for me. I have been justifying studying history long before teaching at RMU. Ever since my days as an undergrad I have been hounded by friends, peers and random acquaintances’ parents regarding the ‘value’ of a history degree. With a smirk on their collective faces, I would hear the banal, unthinking question, ‘what are you gonna do with a BA in history?’ It was obvious to me long before entering the working world that in American society, the utility of a degree, meaning the amount of money to be made from having it, is the most important thing for a lot of people.
Of course, not everyone is so materialistically utilitarian. Some people simply don’t like history. Since I was a freshman, I often gained unsolicited opinions such as, ‘history is my least favorite subject'; or ‘I can’t understand what you would find enjoyable about studying such a boring topic.’
This is a much more difficult challenge to face. For paycheck-concerned-parents, I can always point to all sorts of studies that show that employers are looking for the skills taught by the liberal arts. But, how do you answer those people who think your subject is a snoozefest? How do you change their minds?
You do the only thing you can do: Prove to those naysayers, whether they be friends, students, or whoever, that history is amazingly interesting and human. You point to Arlette Farge, the great historian of 18th century French, who beautifully stated that ‘It is a rare and precious feeling to suddenly come upon so many forgotten lives, haphazard and full, juxtaposing and entangling the close with the distant, the departed.’ For me, this statement encapsulates the study of history.
But, there is more. Those lives Farge ‘comes upon’ are often weird. They are often funny. Their lifestyles are often salacious. Their worlds are often disgusting. In other words, Farge’s lives illustrate that the past is achingly, tragically, amazingly human. You can discover all sorts of strange surprises in these lives.
For instance, a couple weeks ago I picked up Professor Colin Jones’ new book on 18th century French culture called The Smile Revolution in Eighteenth Century Paris. Jones investigated a seemingly ahistorical subject: human smiles. But, as he fascinatingly points out, emotions, and their physiological manifestations (smiles), have faced different cultural receptions throughout history. According to Jones, in France, open mouth smiling was frowned upon (sorry about the pun) starting in the reign of Louis XIV. Open mouthed guffawing was considered to be low class. Why was this so? Well, as Jones points out, this probably had much to do with the fact that people living in the 18th century had horrendous teeth. Here is Jones describing the sad, but common dental experience of the philosophe Abbe Galiani:
“In a gloomy countdown, he recorded that he still had fourteen (teeth) remaining in June 1770, but only eight in August 1771. By then, any untoward movement of his tongue while he was talking led to his teeth springing out of his mouth. His conversation, he complained, had become a mixture of unintelligible mumbling and inadvertent whistling which baffled his friends. He began to have dreams in which his teeth grew back. …By mid 1772 all his teeth were gone; he was in his early forties.”
Can you imagine this? I can. History makes me imagine.
Simply put, learning about such topics in history makes me feel like Bill Murray’s character in the Royal Tenenbaums, when he says: