What is History?

"Imagination is the ability to bring to mind things that aren’t present to our senses. With imagination you can revisit the past. Indeed you have a past. It is the root of historical study. What history teaches is that the past is not settled. It’s not a closed account. It’s a vibrant, fertile place that’s open to constant reinterpretation. With imagination you can visit other people’s point of view. You can empathize with their life. You can empathize with how they see and feel things."

– Sir Kenneth Robinson

Before history students open a textbook, memorize a date, or write a thesis statement, they should understand what they will be learning and why they will be learning it. Students don’t necessarily come to school looking forward to learning history, and unless they understand the importance of what they will be studying, they will likely put little effort into learning it.

I have listed seven questions below that I hope will lead students toward a better understanding of the historical process and why it matters to learn that process. I make no claims to having profound answers to the questions. I only ask that history teachers use this information to spark their own thinking and develop their own answers, possibly even adding new questions.

1. What is history?
History is a
story created from an examination of the recorded past.

2. Why is history defined as a “story"?
When we study history we don’t necessarily learn what happened — we learn a “story” about what happened. History might not always move forward in a linear fashion with clear beginnings and endings that can be divided into distinct chapters. Even so, historians often explain the past with stories divided into chapters so that it makes sense. The historical process requires historians to compartmentalize and categorize information into a variety of topics (or chapters). Otherwise, the past might appear chaotic.

It might help to think of historians as detectives. They gather evidence about something that happened and then hope they can recreate the past in a way that persuades people to accept their version beyond a reasonable doubt.

Like detectives, historians might never know for certain whether they have accurately recreated what happened. The best they can do is create a narrative that conforms to the evidence available to them. They also understand that different detectives/historians might provide different narratives, even when they have examined the same evidence.

If several people witness a crime, for example, investigators might hear several versions of what happened. Even if they have a film of the crime, they might interpret what they see in the film in different ways. Over time, investigators might even gather evidence that discredits eyewitness accounts, leading to entirely new versions of the story.

In short, the job of historians, like crime investigators, is to reach rational conclusions based on the evidence available to them and then create a narrative from that evidence. For the narrative to make sense, historians must compartmentalize and categorize information, and whenever new evidence emerges, they must be willing to reevaluate their conclusions and change their narrative.

And that’s the historical process. Students should understand that history requires them to tolerate uncertainty. They can never really know what happened. They can only examine the “stories” created from available evidence.

Everybody likes a bit of gossip to some point, as long as it’s gossip with some point to it. That’s why I like history. History is nothing but gossip about the past, with the hope that it might be true.

– Gore Vidal

3. What is meant by describing history as the "recorded" past?
If we have no records from the past, we quite simply have no way of knowing what happened.

Historians look at a variety of artifacts and documents to create their stories of the past. They study letters, diaries, paintings, photographs, music, old clothes, cooking utensils, weapons, garbage, and much more. They might even study natural phenomena, looking at the geographical features of where people lived or the significant natural events that might have affected their lives.

All told, trying to tell a story about what happened in the past requires historians to assemble a puzzle from many different pieces of evidence. Even when the picture is seemingly complete, a new piece of the puzzle can cause the historian to see an entirely new picture and revise the story they had always told. Some pieces of the puzzle might be lost forever, and the historian might never know the entire story about something that happened.

Like detectives, historians have problems to solve. They ask questions about the past and then look at artifacts to create a narrative to answer those questions and describe what life was like for people living in a bygone era.

4. Why do we wonder about a world that no longer exists?
We wonder about the past because we cannot help ourselves. We read an old letter and wonder about the person who wrote it. We look at an old stove and wonder what type of food people cooked on that stove. We look at our system of government and wonder how it developed. We see our friends and colleagues on Monday and ask them what they did over the weekend. Questions about the past are ever present in our lives.

History might also help us understand what is eternally true about being human. It might help us understand ourselves as individuals and the world in which we live. History helps us see a bigger picture of how human beings once lived and how our lives fit into that picture. It’s only natural to wonder how much our world is the same as the world of the past, as well as how much it is different.

5. How does history help us understand today’s world?
All of us are products of the world in which we live. If we had been born in a different time and place, we might speak different languages, eat different types of food, wear different types of clothes, adhere to different social customs, and follow different religions. Much of who we are and what we think is a product of our time and place in history, and the distinct character of our time is a product of thousands of years of history.

Even the things we wonder about are a product of the time in which we live. The questions we ask about the past reflect the circumstances of our lives, and we can’t force ourselves to wonder about the things we just don’t wonder about. (I hope that makes sense!)

Americans in today’s world, for example, ask different questions about the past than Americans of the 1890s, 1930s, or 1960s. Additionally, the questions that Americans ask about the past are probably much different from the questions people in China or Russia ask about their past.

In short, history is a dynamic, ever-changing, and often contentious subject.

The study of history is a powerful antidote to contemporary arrogance. It is humbling to discover how many of our glib assumptions, which seem to us novel and plausible, have been tested before, not once but many times and in innumerable guises; and discovered to be, at great human cost, wholly false.

– Paul Johnson

6. How does the dynamic nature of history affect the stories we tell about the past?
Our stories about the past are always changing. The story of the American Civil War that people heard in the 1930s is different from the story told today, and the story that is told 80 years from now will be different from the story we tell today. History is not necessarily what happened, it is a
story about what happened, and the way we tell the story keeps changing to accommodate the time in which we live.

Not only does the time in which we live shape the story, the place we live also affects the way history is told. Americans tell a much different story of the American Revolution than the British. The Vietnamese tell a much different story of the Vietnam War than Americans.

The challenge for all of us is to become bigger than the time in which we live.

7. What does it mean to become “bigger” that the time in which we live?
Studying history provides us with the bigger picture of our lives. We are able to see how our lives compare to the lives of the billions of people who came before us. The more we understand about the people of the past, the more we can understand ourselves. History gives us a much greater perspective on our world and our place in it.

And there is no reason we must remain prisoners of the modern world. We can learn to think beyond our lives and imagine a better world. Like Americans who knew slavery was wrong while living in a world that accepted slavery, we can put ourselves on the right side of history. We can imagine a better and more humane world to come. We can be “bigger” than the time in which we live.