“All human beings are practicing historians. As we go through life we present ourselves to others through our life story; as we grow and mature we change that story through different interpretations and different emphasis. We stress different events as having been decisive at different times in our life history and, as we do so, we give those events new meanings. People do not think of this as ‘doing history’; they engage in it often without special awareness. We live our lives; we tell our stories. . . . Our self-representation, the way we define who we are, also takes the shape of the life story we tell. What we remember, what we stress as significant, and what we omit of our past defines our present. . . . This personal history affects our future.”
In these opening words from her essay, “Why History Matters,” in her masterful book of the same name, noted historian Gerda Lerner speaks directly not only to the work of her profession, but also to the work of each of us. At the same time she connects the theme of this issue of the Forum — story — to that of the previous issue — identity.
Consider how much of your daily conversation involves relating personal stories, how the local or national news consists of retelling stories — as I write, of massive flooding in the Carolinas, of local and national politics, of the weekend’s football victories and defeats. Think, too, of how you maintain your family’s story, through photographs in scrapbooks or albums or on your phone. The popularity of ancestry sites has ignited curiosity about family stories that used to be the domain of a solitary uncle or cousin or the dustbin of history.
Stories begin with questions, as every journalist knows. Like journalists, historians are storytellers. We can’t help ourselves — story is embedded in the word history. We tell stories because we believe there is something to be learned from what happened in the past, even if the past was only yesterday.
I’ve become particularly curious lately about the history of Phi Kappa Phi. A story I shared at this summer’s convention arose from my wondering why it was, that in the midst of the Great Depression, the leaders of the Society decided to create an award to support graduate education for Phi Kappa Phi members who were finishing their baccalaureate degrees. I’ll need to do more digging in the archives to learn more, but I did discover the idea was sparked in the office I now hold. The fellowship was created in memory of an early leader of the Society.
Now, nearly ninety years after its conception, the Phi Kappa Phi fellowship is our signature program. In 2019 the three-tiered award will support fifty-eight members as they begin graduate study. The history of the program reflects the ups and downs of the American story over the years as well as the expansion of higher education.
All because, once upon a time . . .