What is History about and why should we care?

The word "history" has several meanings. It can mean everything that's ever happened in the past. This is not very useful, however, because, until we get a time machine, we cannot know everything that happened. Thus a second definition: history as the written record of what happened in the past or put another way, history is what historians write. But historians usually refer to their own body of writing as historiography, not history. A written record depends upon primary sources, what the historian terms evidence. Out of these fragmentary pieces of evidence, the historian constructs a plausible interpretation of what happened in the past. At various times and places, people have given a wide range of definitions, serious and cynical, for history. It's also fun to construct an understanding of the past, which is why I teach using a constructivist or inquiry-guided learning approach.

  • Because sources are incomplete, historians makes some educated guesses. However, this is not so different from many other disciplines. Trial-and-error (not random acts) enters into the methodologies in many disciplines. Social scientists, using multivariate analysis, statistically test the relationships between different variables. Chemists observe reactions, and, based on the outcomes of those observations, try another combination. Engineers constantly tinker, test, and reformulate. Debugging software often includes trial-and-error, based on prior experience. Composers do not write a perfect scores the first time; they compose, listen, revise, hope for inspiration, and then finally complete a song. Probing for and creating new knowledge always requires a measure of uncertainty and almost certainly involves some failures. The same holds for history. Scholars are those who learn to accept and even thrive in such an environment.

  • History is both quite similar to and different from other disciplines that you may be familiar with. For example, history includes a full range of "knowables," from solid facts, to working hypotheses, to general theories. Math has 2+2=4, a solid fact. History has Elvis is dead and the North won the Civil War. Nothing to debate.
  • However, evidence can be fragmentary, incomplete, and contradictory. Every discipline has to winnow lots of data, much of it extraneous, during the research process. A scientist will do a major literature review, reading many articles that ultimately have no bearing on the case at hand. Visualize an archaeologist, trying literally to piece together broken fragments [building stones, pot shards, textile remnants, human bones] from a prehistoric site. That's analogous to what the historian must do-- piece together often seeming unrelated pieces of the past. In the process, you'll encounter evidence that doesn't fit with the case at hand. That's part of any research and inquiry process. But keep in mind that such evidence may become relevant to a later research project. No inquiry is every wasted.
  • History thus gets much more interesting when we move from a simple compilation of facts to an explanation of those facts. Thus in the same way that a chemist eyes a possibly new compound or a sociologist explores a new social relationship, so the historians interrogates the evidence of the past in order to understand and explain it as best s/he can. My job as your teacher is not to "cover" a huge body of facts. We have computerized databases for such mundane tasks. My job is to give you an opportunity to work and think like a real historian.
  • YOUR job, as an apprentice historian, is not to run to a textbook so that you can regurgitate the "right answer."That's akin to looking in the back of a textbook and simply copying the "correct" answer to a math or science problem. It's the process, the attempt at grappling with the evidence, that counts. You get better at it by practice, as with anything worthwhile. You'll be rewarded for your attempt at working like a historian, not at parroting back what prior historians already wrote. So dig into the primary sources with relish and energy; that's where the fun and action are. Need more convincing? Explore the Why Study History page for more links and information.
  • Below you'll find historians commenting on a wide range of historical issues. Perhaps their words can help you better understand the process of historical inquiry that I've asked you to undertaken. [Unless otherwise identified, quotations below come from Roger Adelson, ed. Speaking of History: Conversations with Historians, 1997 or John Tosh, ed. Historians on History, 2000]

    History: What is it?

    "The popular conception of history as simply a record of past events seems to have as an obvious corollary history's basic unchangeability. History is often seen as a vast array of facts, arranged more or less chronologically, unalterable except for the occasional unearthing of a lost city of the discovery of a trunk full of letters in an attic. At its best, it is an exciting and vivid costume drama; at its worst it becomes a tedious, turgid catalog of facts and names designed to torment the young. . . . The problem lies in presenting history as a story with a fixed plot and cast of characters. It is true that this approach is natural and to some extent unavoidable, particularly with students receiving their first systematic exposure to history. But it is also possible, indeed critically important, to offer at least a glimpse of a very different concept: history as a dynamic process. By this I mean a rich, varied, evolving intellectual system that allows us to achieve a deeper and better understanding of our world, indeed of ourselves. In this vein history still deals with the past, but it conceptualizes a past in constant dialog with an ever-advancing present, one that responds to new questions and reveals fresh insights into the human condition. This is history as it is understood (and enjoyed) by professional historians, and it is high time that others were let in on the secret." [Anthony Brundage, Going to the Sources, 1997, pp. 1-2]

    Brundage well captures the constructivist view of history. As apprentice historians, your job is to join in the fray-- to grapple with evidence from the past and to cast it into a logical, convincing interpretation.
    "History is powerful because we live with its residues, its remnants, its remainders and reminders. . . . Thatís why we cannot abandon intellectual rigor or devalue accuracy. History has an irreducible positivistic element, for its subject is real, even if that reality is evanescent and dependent upon texts. Historical writing creates objects for our thoughts, making audible what had become inaudible, extracting latent information from the objects that men and women have constructed. . . . The concreteness of history is what gives it the power to compel attention, to stretch imagination, and to change minds." [Joyce Appleby, American Historical Review, Feb. 1988, p. 12]
  • "The making of history is a dynamic process. What happened in the past was not fated or meant to be. It occurred because human actors shaped their destinies by the choices they made, just as people today shape their futures by the choices they make." [Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 2001, pp. 160-61]

    Appleby and Wineburg remind us that our construction (interpretation of the past MUST be linked concretely to empirical evidence (shreds) of the past. I use this term "construction" in the pedagogical sense that a teacher and students jointly build (from evidence) interpretations of the past. This view stands in opposition to the more traditional image of the teacher or sage dispensing wisdom into students--empty vessels-- who passively receive and regurgitate what they've consumed. Thus I am not implying that all versions of the past are equal or accurate. We will constantly check our constructions against those of other scholars and against as much evidence as we can include. Note that I am NOT using the term constructions, as does Michel-Rolph Trouillet, to refer to a postmodernist take on the definition of history itself. In this latter view, "history becomes one among many types of narratives with no particular distinction except for its pretense of truth" [Silencing the Past, 1995, p. 6]. Wrong! History IS distinctly different from other fictional narratives in that it must be grounded in evidence, not fantasy. All historical explanation must be grounded in and linked directly to the past through the use of supporting evidence. "Modernist history is not positivist, in the sense of aspiring to a fixed, total or absolute truth about the past. Like postmodernist history, it is relativistic, but with a difference, for its relativism is firmly rooted in reality. It is skeptical of absolute truth but not of partial, contingent, incremental truths. More important, it does not deny the reality of the past itself. Like the political philosopher who makes it a principle to read the words of the Ancients in the spirit of the Ancients, so the modernist historian reads and writes history in that spirit, with a scrupulous regard for the historicity, the integrity , the actuality of the past." [Gertrude Himmelsfarb, in Tosh, p. 290]
  • Anthony Brundage further expands on this essential difference: "So the first lesson that historians are entitled to teach is the austere one: not to generalize from false premises based on inadequate evidence. The second is no more comforting: the past is a foreign country; there is very little we can say about it until we have learned its language and understood its assumptions; and in deriving conclusions about the processes which occurred in it and applying them to our own day we must be very careful indeed. . . . If we are properly to educate the laity it is not enough to awaken an interest in the past to provide them with an agreeable leisure occupation. It is not enough to provide for them scholarly exercise in the handling of evidence on which they can sharpen their wits. We have to teach them how to step outside their own cultural skins and enter the minds of others; the minds not only of our own forebears, enormously valuable though this is, but of those of our contemporaries who have inherited a different experience from the past." [Michael Howard in Tosh, pp. 181, 185.]
  • "Although written records tend to predominate as source materials in most fields of history, in others (particularly ancient and medieval) there is often a heavy reliance on artifacts. Such materials are of importance to those studying modern history as well. Weapons, coins, household utensils, cathedrals, statues, and films can cast as much light on the past as diaries, letters, and newspapers. Whether these historical raw materials are written records or artifacts we refer to them as primary sources. The written histories that historians fashion from these past (primary) sources in turn become (secondary) sources for subsequent investigators." [Brundage, Going to the Sources, 1997, p. 16]

    History is the Story of People

  • "In approaching social history, I very consciously chose to write about those people who were the least literate, those who had written the least, and those who had contributed the least to high culture. Instead I chose people who had contributed their labor. . . . I took much encouragement from African Americans. When they were first told that their history could not be written, they proceeded to first find and then interpret the necessary documents. When women were also told there weren't any sources because women hadnít run anything, I knew the materials were out there and that what I had to do was locate them." [Joan M. Jensen, in Adelson, p. 135]
  • "The problem of agency is the problem of find a way of accounting for human experience which recognises simultaneously and in equal measure that history and society are made by constant and more or less purposeful individual action and that individual action, however purposeful, is made by history and society. . . . People make their own history-- but only under definite circumstances and conditions: we act through a world of rules which our action creates, breaks, and renews-- we are creatures of rules, the rules are our creations: we make our own world-- a world confronts us as an implacable and autonomous system of social facts." [E. P. Thompson, as quoted by Philip Abrams in Tosh, pp. 227-28] Put another way, examine the volition, desires, and efforts of individuals. Then step back and look for the constraints and opportunities surrounding that individual, based on social class, race, sex, and other variables. Two people in similar circumstances may have very different historical experiences, based on how society has defined and viewed their roles.

    Practical Application: Examine every paragraph that you compose. Does it include the actual words, actions, thoughts, desires, or fears of specific people (as individuals and/or in groups) from the past? Does it consider the social context in which these people operated? If not, research more, revise, and get people center stage!

    History: What's it good for?

  • "History can make us better informed citizens. At the very least, it can supplement the thirty-second sound bites of our day with perspectives drawn from centuries of human experience." [Walter L. Arnstein, in Adelson, p. 20]
  • "Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child." [Cicero, 106-43 BCE, to the Roman Senate]
  • "If they [history students] have learned enough from their critical reading of history, they should be able to detect farce better than those who are unlettered and ill informed about the past." [C. Vann Woodward, in Adelson, p. 262]
  • "First, I urge you to see how the past fits into the present and foreseeable future. History makes no sense unless it is integrated into the dynamics of the contemporary world. Secondly, you should appreciate the totality of factors that shape human development, including climate and geography, which are insufficiently emphasized by historians. Thirdly, I hope you will realize how cultural conditioning shapes your individual subconscious. Then, you will have to accept the fact that much of your life is predetermined by global pressures that roll over all linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversities; building your future is determined by factors beyond your control." [Theodore H. Von Laue, Adelson, p. 238]
  • "History is creative, but it is based on all the records and perceptions of the past. As such, history can widen and deepen our own limited experience. So much can be learned from studying the past carefully that I wish more people, particularly politicians, knew history better than they do. . . . learn the tools of the trade, avoid ideological hang-ups, and be as honest as you can." [Afaf Lutfi al-Sayyid Marsot, in Adelson, p. 162]
  • "History can give present generations not only a sense of belonging to a given political, social, and geographical area, but also a sense of past human achievements, no matter how modest they might be. Everyone makes some kind of a contribution, either negative or positive, in the progress of civilization that, taken collectively, has meaning. I think understanding the historical process prevents divisive and destructive forces from overtaking us. I think there is psychological value in understanding history, as it gives us ideas of what humans are about and what differentiates them from animals. Fortunately, we have a recoverable sense of what happened in the past that historians can document. I think that humanity should take some solace in understanding that every generation had its problems, losses, calamities, disappointments, and victories. Tomorrow may be not different in that we will continue to make blunders." [Thomas D. Clark, in Adelson, p. 37]
  • "You canít do scholarship as a quarterly profits statement. But that is what society wants and how it pays for its knowledge. Todayís society systematically obliterates anything older than three to five years; a century is unimaginably long." [Stephen J. Pyne, in Adelson, p. 218] [Note how many Internet links are missing shortly after they have been posted! Is the attention-deficit-disorder of the World Wide Web contributing to our social amnesia?]
  • "Yet the reading of history, which is in some ways like visiting another country, can have the enlightening effect commonly attributed to travel. I am also convinced that the practice of history--that is, the employment of its methods in the analysis of data--can sharpen oneís critical faculties. . . . it lends perspective to personal experience and, like literature and the arts, enrichment to the life of the mind." [Don E. Fehrenbacher, AHA Perspectives, Mar. 1998, p. 36]

    History and Theory

  • Historians often benefit from theories of human behavior developed by other social scientists. These theories of social, economic, or political behavior can help historians make sense of dense, seemingly contradictory data. However, historians take care to work empirically and inductively-- theoretical considerations may help explain and interpret data, however the historians does not have his/her mind made up, based on theory, before confronting the evidence. Most practicing historians reject the recent fads of philosophical nihilism and anti-empiricism of "grand theory," postmodernism, deconstruction, and "cultural studies." Applying such theories to fiction has little significant impact-- one version of make-belief may be as compelling as another. However, arguing that one reading of a historical (factual) text is as good as another is patently absurd. Either Elvis is dead or he is not-- we test the proposition with evidence. Regardless of one's ideology, culture, or theoretical disposition, some intractable facts of history remain. That is the historian's domain.
  • Writing of postmodernist fads, Australian historian Keith Windschuttle writes that "There are three common qualities that all, or nearly all, of them share which make them jointly culpable. First, they reject those aspects of the scientific method of the Enlightenment that were based on observation and inductive argument. They consequently reject works of history that are based on the same principles. Second, they all hold a relative view of the concepts of truth and knowledge. Most deny that we can know anything with certainty, and believe that different cultures create their own truths. Third, most deny the ability of human beings to gain any direct contact with or access to reality. Instead, they support a form of linguistic idealism that holds that we are locked within a closed system of language and culture, which refers not beyond our minds to an outside world but only inwardly to itself.
    Despite the urgings of those who claim that greater adoption of theory would enrich history, the widespread acceptance of any one of these last three points would be enough to kill off the discipline, as it has been practised, for good. The first undermines the methodology of historical research; the second destroys the distinction between history and fiction; the third means not only that it is impossible to access the past but that we have no proper grounds for believing that a past independent of ourselves ever took place. In other words, if historians allows themselves to be prodded all the way to this theoretical abyss, they will be rendering themselves and their discipline extinct." [Keith Windschuttle, The Killing of History: How Literary and Social Theorists are Murdering the Past, 1996, pp. 36-37]

    Value of International and Comparative Perspectives

  • "I hope more comparative history is done; the emphasis on the uniqueness of the United States is unfortunate. My experiences in the South have given me some clues to the Third World." [C. Vann Woodward, in Adelson, p. 261]
  • "All historians look at patterns. Historical patterns may be very small, but they are still patterns. The use of words means patterning the flux of actual experience. Any word used to describe an event assimilates what happened to a much larger class of similar actions, things, and relationships. Since words generalize and historians are wordsmiths, we cannot escape making patterns. The only difference is the one of scale." [William H. McNeil, in Adelson, p. 179]
  • "I urge historians to get more international experience since there is nothing like looking back on oneís culture form the perspective of another. My teaching in Austria, Britain, Greece, India, and Yugoslavia helped me to see things in ways I had not viewed them before. . . . Internationally experienced historians can free themselves from the one-dimensional views of historians who stay in their own country." [Thomas D. Clark, in Adelson, p. 33]
  • "I enjoin you to cross cultural boundaries, learn foreign languages, study foreign countries, and live abroad for a time." [Theodore H. Von Laue, in Adelson, p. 238]
  • "I think that one of the ultimate objectives for humanity is for everyone on this globe to feel appreciated, to know they are important, and to be able to contribute to the betterment of people all over the world. Historians should offer perspectives that go beyond the nation that people live simply to accumulate as much of the earthís resources as they can appropriate, steal, or lobby for in order to serve their own personal ends or to aggrandize themselves. Historians should help students become less indifferent to people besides their neighbors next door. In other words, I believe that historians must play a largest role in shaping the way people identify themselves with the human race and in their relations with the rest of the world." [Darlene Clark Hine, in Adelson, p. 119]

    Thinking and Writing History

  • "Many historians deny that they are using art in their writing, but how else could you describe the process? I am a defender of the view that good history necessitates good writing. The reverse, that a good writer is a good historian, is not necessarily true. I think that the writer of history shares some aims with the creative writer, but with entirely different rules. You donít invent history, but you use art to convey it. Historians have been called men of letters for the greater part of their own history, long before some of them thought of themselves as social scientists." [C. Vann Woodward, in Adelson, p. 257]
  • "Achieving [and expressing] mature historical thought depends precisely on our ability to navigate the uneven landscape of history, to traverse the rugged terrain that lies between the poles of familiarity and distance from the past. . . . [quoting historian Richard White] "Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present, for it if is familiar why revisit it? The past should be so strange that you wonderful how you and people you know and love could come from such a time." [Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, 2001, pp. 5, 11]
  • ". . . by studying societies unlike our own, we counteract the chronocentrism that blinkers contemporary vision." [Joyce Appleby, American Historical Review, Feb. 1988, p. 12]
  • In "traveling" between the past and present, we need to avoid the danger of chroncentrism. What does that term mean? It's the temporal equivalent of ethnocentrism. In the latter, we (mis)judge other cultures by a mindless application of our own narrow cultural standards and biases. In the former, we impose on other time periods (epochs) the assumptions and values of our own times. This is also called anachronism--forcing elements of one time period onto another.