She said: What is history?
And he said: History is an angel
being blown backwards into the future
He said: History is a pile of debris
And the angel wants to go back and fix things
To repair the things that have been broken
But there is a storm blowing from Paradise
And the storm keeps blowing the angel backwards into the future
And this storm, this storm is called Progress”
“A Dream Before (for Walter Benjamin)”
Dear 30 year-old Drew,
Today I submitted my master’s thesis, completing all requirements for a Master’s of Arts in History. I feel compelled to write to you because I know where you are. I know what you are thinking. Most importantly, I know what lies in front of you should you decide to begin graduate school. At 30 years old. Married. With a full-time job that keeps you away from home for up to sixty hours per week.
There are definitely some reasons to get a Master’s degree in history. There are also some “reasons” in your head which are not legitimate reasons to get a Master’s degree in history. Someone should have told you at least some of these already. Some had incentives not to do so. I will give them the benefit of the doubt because they did not know what was in your head… and I do.
If you want to get a terminal MA because you relish in the image of yourself surrounded by old books neatly displayed in mahogany bookcases, wearing an earth-tone cardigan from Brooks Brothers… you do not need the degree. Nothing keeps a person from calling herself a historian.
If you entertain thoughts that you want to be a history professor and you think that a terminal MA may be a good way to gauge whether this is the path for you… I can save you a lot of time and money with a much easier test. Attend the American Historical Association annual meeting. Spend 30 minutes people-watching PhDs from elite schools with award-winning publications from elite publishers nervously walk into interviews for non-tenure track or adjunct jobs for community colleges in the middle of nowhere. You will feel much better about your current professional circumstances.
If you want to attend graduate school because the military is willing to pay for a significant portion of the tuition, then that is a legitimate reason. You should not procrastinate. Remember that the moment it is convenient for the military to remove you from its ranks, that opportunity will be gone faster than a notification for a mandatory briefing about the necessity of taking care of others in your “military family.”
If you want to want to pursue the MA because you think that another degree will remove any nagging sense that you are not smart enough… you do not need the degree. Invest in yourself by investing in therapy. However, the history curriculum may help you decide what to look for among the therapeutic options available.
If you want to pursue the MA because you enjoy writing and want to become a better writer, you should pursue the degree. If, however, you think that becoming a better writer means being praised whenever you submit an assignment… you do not want to pursue this degree. You could save money by hiring people to host a pep rally for you. But if you are serious about opening your thoughts, your interpretations of readings, and your writing up to criticism, then this program will do that for you. You will be told that your writing is not precise enough. You will be told that your writing is not approachable enough. Remove all passive voice. Remove all passive voice. Remove all… and just start over. Your writing is too aggressive for a historian and reads like an activist. What the first reader hates will be the only part the second reader wants to salvage. Learn quickly that you need to distinguish between yourself, your thoughts, and your drafts.
If you want to gather up facts and arguments to prove the notions in your head to yourself or others, you do not need the degree. The next two years will convince you how unnecessary facts and arguments are to gaining disciples. This program will not simplify the past for you. Quite the opposite, it will complicate your entire world. It will damn near ruin your luxury vacation to Puerto Rico. Moral tensions will hook themselves onto your military service and make your decision to reenlist torturous. This program will rip open your eyelids at night. The past is a crimson red motherfucking pill for the digitally distracted, chronically-present age.
If you want to learn to rape books, dissect them surgically, dismember and process them like carcasses on the kill-floor of a meatpacking plant… you will love this program.If you want to learn to read deeply, slowly, and reflexively… do not pursue this degree. However, if you want to develop lists of books and articles you want to read deeply, slowly, and reflexively… this degree will do that.
If you want to break out of your intellectual rut and want a structure to guide you in reading books, thinking thoughts, and wrestling with problems that you would not, or could not read, think, or wrestle through alone, the MA program will help you do that. If you need – and trust me, you will – to develop the habit of regularly escaping from the disconnected data streams that bombard you and retreating into older thoughts and thinkers who drill down into the depths and foundations of ideas, this program will help you do that. Just make sure that you come back, because this world needs reminded of older perspectives.
If you need the sense of purpose that comes with working through something difficult studying history during this particular moment is a unique kind of martyrdom.