Studying History: That’s Old News

Solomon
Thirteenth century Italian statue of King Solomon. Photo taken during my recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art as part of a Medieval History class assignment.

Hey, Gang!

So, I formally declared as a history major today, and since it’s been a while since my last post, I thought it might be a good time to follow up this one from last fall with a little snippet from the homepage of my school’s history department:

“For undergraduate history majors, career opportunities are many and varied. Becoming a history teacher has long been a goal, but there are also positions of interest in government, publishing, media, communications, and business. Medical, law, and other professional graduate schools favor history majors because of their broad background in liberal arts and skills in analyzing the past in relation to the present.”

I’m going to memorize that. It expresses in three sentences what it took me a 700-word blog post to say. It’s perfect.

And with that said, I’ll let you know what I want to do with my history degree – what I want to be when I grow up – as soon as I decide. But for now, it’s back to my homework.

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Major Assumptions: The Woe of an Aspiring History Student

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against teachers. I love teachers. They are noble, dedicated professionals for whom I have nothing but respect and admiration. But please, please, for the love of god, PLEASE! When I tell you I want to major in history, stop asking me if I plan on becoming a teacher.

Okay, it’s not the question itself that bothers me. I don’t mind that people are curious about my life plans/career goals. What rubs me like a schoolyard noogie is the automatic, assumptive manner in which this question is always put to me. It’s as if the word “history” triggers a reflex-like response where people can’t help but blurt, “Oh, so you want to teach then?” As if they’re only asking me to affirm what they already know – that, “duh, what else would you do with a history degree?” That my desire to study history must translate to an aspiration to teach.

And I’m not saying I’ve ruled out the possibility of becoming a teacher. Far from it. But, as you might imagine, it gets a little frustrating when you’re relentlessly confronted with other peoples’ narrow view of your future options.

Look, I get it. There aren’t many professions where it’s important to know when the Battle of Hastings took place. But anyone who thinks bite-size tidbits of trivia are all I’ll gain by studying this subject completely misunderstands history as an academic discipline.

An astute observer will recognize a history major as someone who’s well-read and well-practiced in writing, who’s adept at detailed analysis and deep critical thinking, who knows how to do intensive research, connect obscure dots, draw informed, insightful conclusions, and can present these ideas in a cohesive and convincing manner. It’s a rigorous, intellectually demanding curriculum that should speak volumes about the aptitude of those who successfully take it on. (Also, you get to learn when the Battle of Hastings took place!)

With that said, it shouldn’t be so hard to imagine any other profession where these skills and aptitude are coveted assets. Or to realize that a history degree frequently precedes any number of perfectly viable graduate programs. (Ever hear of law school? Journalism school? Even business school?) Needless to say, peoples’ tendency to underestimate the practical value of a history degree is … irksome.

So, if not teaching, what will I do with a history degree? Well, beyond hanging it on my wall, I really haven’t decided. I’m pursuing this course of study with no specific career objective in mind. I want a to earn a college degree, and history is my favorite subject. It’s as simple as that. My lack of laser-focus might seem foolish to some, especially given today’s competitive job market and the out-of-control costs of higher learning, but I’m really not that worried about it. As I’ve explained, a history degree is a versatile credential, and if my extensive experience as a job-seeker is any indication, having one will give an opportunity-expanding boost to my future aspirations.

In the meantime, I’d rather not dwell on the professional viability of my college education. I get that it’s something I’ll have to sort out eventually, but for now, I’m just looking forward to immersing myself in a subject that has captured my imagination for as long as I can remember. I just want to learn – to to enrich my mind and become a smarter person – regardless of the financial payoff. To me, that’s what education is supposed to be about.

So, to sum up today’s lesson, I am sincerely flattered by your interest in my future plans. And you are welcome to ask me if I want to become a teacher, provided the question arises more naturally in our conversation. But again, please stop asking simply because you assume there’s nothing else a history major can do. It just annoys me, and makes me want to put your ass in the corner with a dunce cap. We both know you’re smarter than that, so kindly knock it off.

Thank you.

Class dismissed.

Presidents of the Land

Dear friends, I would like to wish you all a very happy President’s Day! Allow me to share with you my holiday salute to all the oath-swearing, veto-wielding, armed-forces-commanding players of the Executive Branch gang, including:

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“Money”
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“Stretch”
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“Wheels”
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“Long-Form”

As you might already know, I’m a big ol’ U.S. presidents buff (and have been since 5th grade when I memorized all of the presidents’ names, you know, for fun). So how does a guy like me celebrate this most exciting of holidays? By not going to work, for one thing. (Thank the Maker for bank holidays.) Also, by posting a list of random but totally interesting facts about U.S. presidents. Nothing too heavy here. Just a few of my favorite bits of presidential trivia. It’s geeky holiday fun for the whole family. So read, learn, and above all, enjoy!

Did you know that:

George Washington wore dentures made of hippopotamus tusk.

John Adams died on the 50th anniversary of American independence: July 4th, 1826. His reported last words were, “Thomas Jefferson Survives.” But he was incorrect, as Jefferson died on the exact same day, several hours earlier.

Thomas Jefferson ordered a list of his major accomplishments to be inscribed on his tombstone. This inscription omits the fact that he had been president for eight years.

James Madison was the shortest U.S. president, at 5 feet 4 inches tall.

James Monroe was the last president of the Founding Fathers Generation, and in 1830 he became the third (and, to date, the last) president to die on the Fourth of July.

John Quincy Adams was known for routinely skinny dipping in the Potomac River.

Andrew Jackson is said to have exchanged pistol-fire in anywhere from a dozen to over 100 duels throughout his life. The future president famously killed expert marksman Charles Dickinson in their 1806 “interview.”

Martin Van Buren was the first president born a U.S. citizen (his predecessors were all born British subjects), and was the only president for whom English was a second language (Dutch being his first).   

William Henry Harrison had the shortest presidency, dying from pneumonia 32 days after he was sworn in.

John Tyler was elected to the Confederate Congress during the Civil War. He died in 1862, in open rebellion against the nation over which he had once presided.

Zachary Taylor was the father-in-law of Confederate president Jefferson Davis.

James Buchanan was the only president to have never married.

Abraham Lincoln created the U.S. Secret Service – to combat rampant counterfeiting – on the day of his assassination in 1865. The agency assumed presidential-protection duty in 1902 in response to the assassination of William McKinley.

Ulysses S. Grant, heroic Union general of the Civil War, couldn’t stand the sight of blood.

James A. Garfield was ambidextrous, and could write simultaneously in Greek with one hand and Latin with the other.

Grover Cleveland had part of his upper jaw surgically removed early in his second term. For the purpose of secrecy, the operation took place aboard a friend’s private yacht as it sailed off of the coast of Long Island.

Theodore Roosevelt, while campaigning for a third presidential term in 1912, delivered a 90-minute speech only moments after taking a would-be assassin’s bullet in the chest.

William Howard Taft became Chief Justice of the Supreme Court after leaving the presidency. As such, he was the only president to administer the oath of office to subsequent presidents (Coolidge and Hoover).

Woodrow Wilson was the only president to hold a Ph.D. (in political science, from Johns Hopkins University).

Calvin Coolidge was the only president born on Independence Day (1872).

Herbert Hoover, a native of Iowa, was the first person born west of the Mississippi River to become president.

Franklin D. Roosevelt married his fifth-cousin, Eleanor, who opted to keep her maiden name: Roosevelt. At their wedding, Eleanor was given away by her uncle, then-president Theodore Roosevelt.

Harry Truman was the last president to have never attended college.

Dwight D. Eisenhower had never voted prior to running for president in 1952.

John F. Kennedy was the youngest person to be elected president, winning the office at age 43. (Teddy Roosevelt became president at 42, but only by succeeding his assassinated predecessor, William McKinley.)

Lyndon B. Johnson had a wife, two daughters, and a dog, all with the initials LBJ (Lady Bird, Luci Baines, Lynda Bird, and Little Beagle Johnson).

Richard Nixon was the only president to be succeeded by an appointed (rather than elected) vice president – Gerald Ford.

Gerald Ford was the longest-lived president, dying at the age of 93 years and 165 days. (Reagan was a close second, living only 45 fewer days).

Ronald Reagan was the only president to have been divorced. He split from his first wife, Jane Wyman, in 1948, and married Nancy Davis in 1952. 

George H.W. Bush, at age 19, was the youngest Naval aviator of World War II. 

Bill Clinton was the first president to have his inaugural ceremony broadcast live on the Internet.  

Barack Obama holds the record for both first and second most popular votes ever received by a presidential candidate. (69.5 million in 2008 and 65.9 million in 2012). 

Did you also know that …

James is the most common first name among the presidents (6). John comes in second (5), and William is third (4). 

Virginia is the most popular state for presidential births (8), with Ohio coming in a close second (7). Massachusetts and New York are tied for third (4 each). 

There have been 47 vice presidents, but only 14 of them have advanced to the presidency. 

The vice presidency was originally awarded not to a president’s running mate, but to the second-place winner in the Electoral College. It was only after the 1804 ratification of the 12th Amendment, which allowed the electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president, that candidates for each office began teaming up on tandem partisan tickets.

Abigail Adams holds the unique distinction of being both the first Second Lady and the second First Lady.

Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, became the only First Lady to enter the presidential line of succession (4th in line, to be exact).  

Robert Todd Lincoln, in addition to having attended his father’s deathbed, was an eyewitness to the shooting of James Garfield, and was a presidential guest at the event where William McKinley was gunned down. His uncanny association with this string of untimely presidential deaths led Lincoln to refuse all invitations to appear publicly with subsequent presidents. The one exception he made was an appearance with Warren G. Harding at the dedication of the Lincoln Memorial in 1922. Harding suffered a fatal heart attack the following year. 

Three presidents have tied the knot during their presidencies, Grover Cleveland being the only one to wed at the White House (and also the only one to have a child born inside the executive mansion). 

The private-market value of the White House is estimated to be roughly $295 million.

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Presidents of the land, I salute you!