Annie Thorn is a sophomore history major from Kalamazoo, Michigan and our intern here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home. As part of her internship she is writing a weekly column titled “Out of the Zoo.” It focuses on life as a history major at a small liberal arts college. In this dispatch, Annie writes about what it means to “win” as a historian. –JF
Messiah College had its homecoming last week. Various decorations made their yearly appearance on campus, sprucing up Messiah’s grounds for visitors. Banners reading “Messiah College Homecoming,” numerous flyers, and bouquets of blue and white balloons were strategically placed around the college to announce homecoming festivities. My school, normally relatively quiet on weekends, buzzed with alumni and their families who bounced between class reunions, open houses, and athletic events.
Homecoming weekend also brought Messiah’s annual powderpuff tournament. This year, my team of sophomores (affectionately named “Green Machine” for our green shirts) had bi-weekly practices leading up to our yearly match. Our coaches wrote out numerous plays for us to learn, patiently explained them, and even let us come up with a creative name for each after they introduced it to us. They assigned positions, ran drills, and even sent us photos of our plays to study over fall break.
When game day came around, we were confident. Our coaches had done everything they could to prepare us for our row with the class of 2021. However, after a hard-fought bout with the juniors we pulled up short, losing 12-20. The whole team was pretty disappointed, and to be completely honest I was too. I’m not usually a competitive person, but I’ll admit that losing a game we had worked so hard for struck a painful chord. We were humbled, to say the least. However, the fun we had, the new things we learned, and the friendships we forged throughout the process afforded us a different sense of victory.
So what qualifies as a “win” for history students? Some might think that to be a successful historian you need to make some groundbreaking discovery or tie up all your research into a perfect conclusion. As a history student myself, however, I’m learning that this kind of victory is virtually impossible, even for the best scholars. Just like football, the study of history is defined by struggle. It’s characterized by setbacks and unexpected challenges that have to be met in stride. Sometimes we’re faced with complex or conflicting sources that we don’t understand. Or other times archives crumble (like the one in Cologne in 2009), burying thousands of documents in rubble. Still more frequently our own convictions and biases block us from our end goal of portraying the past honestly and objectively. No matter how much time we devote to a project, there will always be loose ends, lost sources, and unexplored paths that we never get to travel.
Challenges, struggles, and losses never fail to humble us, whether we’re playing football or doing historical research. No matter how hard we work at practice, there will always be something we could have done differently in the game. No matter how much effort we put into our research, there will always be something we don’t quite understand fully. If history students aren’t reminded of this truth—that although the study of history is rewarding, it comes with its own unique set of challenges—they will spend their days agonizing over a goal that is impossible to attain.
So, as cliche as it may sound, perhaps we need to re-define what victory means in the realm of history. It shouldn’t mean scoring the most points in a trivia game, being able to find the most sources, or even conducting the most comprehensive study of the past. Instead, real victory is attained when we show up, put in the effort, and wrestle with the struggles that come our way. We win when we can pursue our passions in spite of challenges, and all the while humbly accept the fact that there are some things we will never know.