History professors explore their love of history & its importance in our lives

“When did you stop worrying and learn to love history?” Professor Jonathan Sheehan, Director of Berkeley Connect History asked, beginning an incredibly informative two-hour panel with History professors Mary Elizabeth Berry, James Vernon, and Caitlin Rosenthal. The secret, according to Professor Berry: “None of us have stopped worrying at all.”

But love history they do, and each shared their journey to becoming a historian. Professor Vernon recognized his passion early, sharing that he had an “intense fascination with grandparents” from the time he was young because of a genuine interest in the past and what it was like to live in it. Professor Rosenthal, in contrast, had no idea when she first entered college. “I took my first history class for a boy,” Rosenthal admitted. “We had dated briefly, and then he dumped me, but he had mentioned this great history class he had taken. I thought we’d have more to talk about if I took it. We never got back together, thank God. But I did take a fantastic history class.” For Berry, it wasn’t until 1980 when she was already teaching in the History department at Cal that she truly came to love history.

In fact, Berry, who has taught for over 40 years about Japanese history, became a professor because of her respect for her own teachers. “I was a successful student, not necessarily a good one. But I worked hard because I wanted to please my teachers. I wanted to be like them, and I just admired them hugely.” She taught briefly at the University of Michigan, Ann-Arbor before coming to UC Berkeley in 1978. In the fall of 1980, one of her colleagues challenged a passage in a book she’d already finished. “You have to have something to say. It has to mean something. He helped me see that. I didn’t love the work before, and then I did,” Berry said.

Vernon admitted that unlike Berry, he was not a good student at all. It was a history teacher that first awakened his passion. “He was the first person who taught me that history was not about remembering a lot of dates and facts,” Vernon recalled. “He was so passionate, and he loved arguing and challenging the way we saw the past.” Vernon grew up in the 1980s, a tumultuous time in Britain. History became the way Vernon engaged in political debate, and it is something Vernon continues to do today as a professor of modern British history. “For me, history is about arguing about the present. It’s about re-evaluating the way we think about the past and critically think about how we came to be here.”

Rosenthal, too, recalled her own journey from wanting to study math and painting to becoming a historian of numeracy and the way fields like accounting relate to American democracy and capitalism. After taking a history class that debunked many of her misconceptions of history, including that it was apolitical, she came across a passage about the veil of the self that fascinated her. “I found this idea totally intoxicating, and it hooked me,” Rosenthal said. After college, however, Rosenthal found her life and her interests take another surprising turn. She found a job as a consultant and ended up working in a variety of fields – from garbage companies to insurance firms and even a railroad. “Basically, I took a tour of American industry,” Rosenthal noted with a laugh. She realized that these companies had more to do with the daily lives of people than a lot of things she’d studied before, and became intensely interested in the question of how businesses got big and how that changed the way they treated their workers.

After each professor shared how they came to discover their love for history, the panel opened to questions that covered everything from life after school and balancing life and work to graduate school to finding your calling. When asked about the value of history in daily life, Berry noted, “History is the mother discipline. It’s a huge house. The more people encounter it, the better.” Rosenthal agrees. “History is incredibly useful. In history, you are either trying to create a story out of little evidence or being crushed under evidence. As a consultant, I found myself in these situations all the time.”

They may have not stopped worrying, but maybe that isn’t a bad thing. “I don’t think I know a single colleague who is not riddled with doubt – but that is what compels us to try to make sense of the past,” Vernon said. So, history students, just keep worrying. It’s fine. So do your professors!

posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant