How I Became a History Major

One of my early steps towards becoming a history major came at the age of thirteen. I had a newspaper delivery route. In fact, I had two of them, one for the DC area morning paper, The Washington Post, and the other for the evening paper, the now defunct Evening Star. I had had a run in with the manager for one of the routes, and he had taken the route away from me. I was mightily pissed. It was not only that I wanted to keep the income stream: I had paid the former carrier 30 bucks for the route, which for a 13 year old of the 50s was a lot of money. So I began thinking about organizing a strike among the area's carriers. As I thought more about it, I realized that the idea was absurd. The manager had acted justly, even if his action did damage my interests, and that to try to harm another for a just action would only harm myself morally and spiritually. I did not have the ability to put all of that in words, but it is how I thought and felt about the situation. This was the first time in my life that I consciously focused on how my fellow human beings thought, felt, and acted in the world of political-economy and for me political-economy is the core of history. I still think now and then of that situation and give it further analysis.

But I've jumped ahead. Let me now give some account of my formal education.

First of all, with much help from my mother, I was reading by the time I was five. By the time I was six, I was reading encyclopedias and had written my first story. Then I began first grade. I remember being very puzzled during my first day of class: the teacher was showing these cards to the class. The first one read, "A Apple" and had a picture on it of an apple. I had no idea of what the woman was trying to do. Soon I realized that most of the other students didn't know how letters worked. That was when I started sleeping a lot in class and continued to do so throughout my grade school years, with one year of exception. That was the year of my second grade, I had a wonderful teacher. Her name was Mrs. Alder and for her I became a model student. One of the things she did every week or so was to play a track from phonograph records about inventors. The theme in many of them was that of a single individual's daring to act in a way which contradicted majority opinion. Robert Fulton was one such person. This experience gave me the impression that the past is full of interesting stories and that people wrote books which told those stories. Another experience which led to my interest in the past was much reading of Aesop's fables. Although there was no one around to tell me about the Greek slave Aesop and how he influenced western civilization with these simple stories, I sensed in them an enormous power. I used them, by the way, not only for amusement but also as a drug for dealing with the anxiety which I would feel when my parents began screaming at each other.

But the second grade was the exception. For the rest of my grade-school years, I was a terrible student from the standpoint of the system. I never did homework and my grades were abysmal. On the other hand, I spent most of my hours reading. I also had a solid grasp of English spelling and always won the spelling contests which were frequently held at Saint Jerome's. My understanding of English spelling was based not on the spelling "rules" which teachers talked about, but on the perception that almost all English words fall into three categories as to their spelling, the names of which I learned much later: Old English, Latin, and French. The diocesan exams were an important part of the setup in the Catholic grade schools in Maryland and I always placed first in them. On the other hand I was ignorant of much of what was taught in the class and arithmetic was beyond me. I wasn't very good with coloring books either.

In the spring of my fourteenth year, I ran afoul of the law and this caused a radical break with my old ways. I was hauled into juvenile court and sentenced to probation. Worse, all the mothers in my neighborhood forbade their children to associate with me. Thus for the summer of that year I worked at building a boat and doing a lot of thinking about my future. I had for many years been convinced that I would eventually end up in prison. My scrape with the law strengthened that conviction. Then came the diocesan exam for entrance to high school. These were like the SAT and decided which of the catholic high schools in the area a student could attend. I placed high in them and got my pick of all but one (Saint Anselm's in Washington, aka, The Priory). I chose Saint John's College, which was a military high school operated by the Brothers of the Christian Schools.

From the very first day at Saint John's, I was a model student. I loved the place. I began studying Latin. This was another link to a past culture and a strengthening of my link to the past. Further, one of my courses was World History. My teacher was, unfortunately, not very good. However, one of my friends in a lower class had a German national who taught with inspiration and I learned a lot of European history from him as he told me what Mr. Foerch taught his class. Also, at this time I read a life of Bismark and from this experience I saw biography as a way of transforming history from a collection of events and dates to a living creature, to something which engaged my passions.

While at Saint John's, I got to know a number of the Brothers quite well and to observe their way of life. I decided to join them. So from my sophomore year on I studied at their high school in Beltsville, Maryland, and was the beneficiary of association with people who were both skilled teachers and serious scholars. However, my history teacher, tho' a wonderful person, was not a scholar. Oddly, I learned more history from my physics teacher, who would often sprinkle his lectures with interesting narratives of the past.

During my high school years, I read or heard read a lot of novels and these were important for giving me a sense of the past and of the fact that an enormous amount of human energy went into studying the past. Also, my literature courses stressed the historical context of the pieces we read.

But in my senior year we did a course in American history, and I hated it. The teacher was not very good and not a scholar. The tests were basically events and dates. I learned more history in my geometry course (two semesters of it, with an extremely learned man who was also a good lecturer and a close friend). In addition, I began to study Greek on my own, which further immersed me in the past. Finally, I spent most of my junior-year Latin course reading the orations of Cicero and Caesar's Wars. In my Senior year, I read more Cicero and spent about three months reading Virgil's Aeneid. So by the end of high school, I had read a lot of history without the courses being stamped "history". But history -- when viewed as "ugh, history" -- was a terror for me.

There was another experience which I had in high school which drew me closer to historians. It was a friendship with one of my classmates. His name was Dan Smith, Dan enjoyed reading histories. That impressed me enormously. I felt that in him was a mind and heart which were far superior to mine, not only in the area of history but in all areas. I think that feeling was based on another feeling which was in me but which I could not deal with head on, that is, that history was in fact the greatest of all areas of scholarship. But perhaps because I believe and feel that now, I am remembering my relationship to Dan as something different than it is. I have come to the point where for me, every book I read is basically a piece of history, whether it be a piece of history per se, or a book dealing with, for example, physics.

After high school, I did my Novitiate. During my novitiate, I got to know my novice master fairly well. He had been an English major and had taught English for many years. He was also a scholar whose ideal was "to know everything about something and something about everything." He was my spiritual director, but often we would discuss secular topics in our weekly half-hour meetings. These were a required part of the novitiate. As the time approached for our departure from the novitiate and entry into the Scholasticate, where we would do college and a masters in divinity, we began to discuss my choice of a major. Brother Erminus suggested that I study English on the grounds that a thorough knowledge of one's own language is fundamental for excellence in any other subject, including the sciences. History was my worst subject, followed by English. My problem with both was that their conclusions were very subjective and had, to my view, no solid proofs, as opposed to what I perceived of the truths of science and mathematics. I was to see later on that the certainties of science are only somewhat more solid than the certainties of literature and history.

So off I went to college. The institution was in Philadelphia. La Salle College. It was a boys school, part of the Catholic Ivy League. And it was there that I came under the sway of one John Lukacs. Lukacs is a fairly well-know historian and quite a character. He's in his 90s now and still chugging. He's written scores of books and has somewhat recently gotten attention as a friend of Joan Didion and her now-deceased husband. He is mentioned in Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking. Specifically, she mentions Five Days in London, May 1940, which is one of the few books by Lukacs' to be found on Pirate Bay. Deep down, I hated Lukacs. He set himself up as a conservative and a champion of traditional values both moral and legal, but in his relationships with students and faculty he was a self-centered anarchist. He would, for example, start an exam whenever he felt like it. On the other hand, he was enormously funny and his lectures were fascinating and he did affect me in a positive way, did build in me what would later become a fascination with the past and with those who studied it. But while I was taking his courses I continued to hate the discipline and hate him as well, despite enjoying his lectures.

I took also during my three years at La Salle a history of English literature from one of the Brothers. He was a one-of-a-kind type and many of the students, including the Brothers, detested him. I was not one of them. He was ailing, although you would never know it except for the fact that he always wore gloves in class, despite the fact that the classrooms were always well heated during the cold Pennsylvania winters. (I would later find out about Brother Galbertus' illness from another close friend among the La Salle faculty.) Again, I received a strengthening of my interest in history.

Then I got sick and had to leave both the Brothers and La Salle College. I spent a year recuperating, and then another year working as a technical writer. During my year as a technical writer I learned to write well and with great joy. I also began to write stories. I wanted to continue in this work, but wanted to do it with a fifty-percent pay raise. My employers declined to give the raise to me. I think it was partly because they took a personal interest in me and wanted me to finish college. I got some county money to go to Maryland University at this time. This opportunity and the refusal of my employers to give me a raise, decided me to go back to school. So what would I do for a major? I could have chosen to continue in English and finish in two semesters. I could also have taken for me the easy way out and changed my major to physics or math. Or I could change my major to my worst subject, history. Characteristically, I chose the last option. My reasoning was that one should, for undergraduate, work in one's weakest subject to broaden oneself and history was definitely my worst subject.

And then there was a kind of obsessive curiosity. People put an enormous amount of energy and time into the study of the past and to dismiss such effort as silliness was, I had finally come to realize, clearly absurd. But why were they doing it? I had to find out. As well there was the feeling that to turn my back on this part of the human struggle would be to turn my back on myself.

So I went to University of Maryland, which at the time turned out to be a very good place to do humanities studies, especially history. The first course I took was called The History of Ideas. It was taught by a man named Francis Haber. He wrote a book, by the way, which was a study of the history of time. Its title is The Age of the World: Moses to Darwin, and it is still in print. I soon came to know this. I also soon came to know about Doctor Haber that he had been a ship's master in the U.S. Merchant Marine and had intended to stay that for the rest of his life until being nagged by his wife into going back to school.

I'll always remember my first day in Haber's class. There was this guy smoking a cigar at the speaker's podium. He was it seemed to me about 60. Every now and then he would turn one of the pages in the pad of legal size pages in front of him. It became clear after about twenty minutes that he was very much into the history of science. This disappointed me a bit, because to my mind at that time, history was about politics. But since science was an environment which I felt very comfortable in, I also felt an enthusiasm about the course.

Very quickly we became friends and eventually very close friends. I learned by the way that those pages he turned while lecturing were blank. He always talked extemporaneously, usually from musings he engaged in while casually driving his MG on back roads from his apartment in Georgetown to College Park. Within a couple of months, he hired me as his research assistant and gave me the keys to his carrel at the Library of Congress. We shared a lot with each other. We would talk talk about history and our lives and hopes late into the night and into the early morning. I learned a lot from him, much of it about history.

Through Haber I met other professors and thus was able to choose other history courses with more information than I'd get from descriptions in the course catalog. I was also able to make friendships with other professors. At that time, because of a very unusual situation in the liberal arts departments at the university, there were few liberal arts students who pursued their studies out of love for them. Those students who did it were pampered by many of the professors. We were welcome in their homes and wined and dined and made part of the professors lives with each other.

What was the unusual situation in the liberal arts departments? In short, Maryland had begun as an engineering school. Nd developed into one of the best in the world. But their humanities studies were weak, so weak that finally the people who grant a university the power to confer degrees began warning Maryland that unless they did something about their humanities programs, they would no longer be able to confer degrees in any area. This went on for decades until finally the riot act was read and a deadline set. The result was that the university's Board of Regents replaced the university's president with someone who could deal with the situation and gave him absolute power to deal with the situation. His actions were draconian. For one thing, he took most of the athletic program's cash and put it into the humanities. This enraged many of the alumni. Maryland had always had one of the top football teams in the country, something which Elkins put an end to. With the resources he took from sports and to some extent, I suspect, from engineering, he built a magnificent library to support studies in the humanities. It was the best, by far, in the Washington area, an area which is home to some of the greatest universities in the world. He also hired a lot of great and pricey professors, among them Haber. As well, he brought on guest professors and invited and paid world famous scholars to speak at the school.

And it was in that environment that I learned a lot and by the end of the three years I spent at Maryland I began to understand what history was about. Most importantly, I began to understand that we humans are by our nature condemned to be slaves to our past and so condemned to try to understand our past so that we can understand who we are in the present and who we can be in the future. And that's the foundation it seems to me of the discipline which we call history.

The adventure continued when I spent two months in Cuba after reading Ten Years After, which is a collection of Fidel Castro's speeches from 1960 to 1970. Above all studies, Marxists respect the study of history. I hope to write that story soon.

Tom Arnall

February 24, 2019