Finding Your Place in History

On Thursday, September 7, Dr. Daniel Schafer from the Department of History encouraged the Scholars to think about their connectedness to history through the story of his great grandmother, Eudora Schafer. He showed the image of a photograph taken when she was a baby sitting on the lap of her great-grandfather, who had himself been a baby when Thomas Jefferson was still alive. The message? We’re not as disconnected from the past–even the seemingly distant past–as we might think.

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Dr. Schafer began by differentiating the past itself from history, which he defined as a process by which you come to understand the past. Historians look for patterns of continuities as one means for understanding, but are also aware of the contingent nature of their study–there is always a chance some new fact will come to light.

He then engaged the Scholars in a consideration of history as a series of circles out from their earliest memory of some public event–for the Scholars, it mostly centered on the 2008 election of Barack Obama, while the professors in the room cited their first memory of a public event, which was a bit more ancient: the 1969 Apollo moon landing!

Dr. Schafer illustrated the fascinating historical difficulties that can arise when a passed-down story is tested by documentary evidence, as he traced competing narratives about a traffic accident involving some of his ancestors from family stories and from contemporary newspaper accounts.

He concluded the evening by encouraging the Scholars to think about the histories of every thing around them: a favorite symphony or a book, or even commodities like coffee, sugar, and milk. As Dr. Schafer pointed out, “Everything has a history.”


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