If I'm going to teach anyone to think like an historian, we first have to tackle this question - what is history? Well, here's a baker's dozen of possibilities:
- the things that happened in the past.
- a record of things that happened in the past, written as it was happening.
- a record of things that happened in the past, written after-the-fact.
- any individual's thoughts, feelings, opinions about the past.
- a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on past events.
- a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on records of past events.
- an academic discipline carried out by people with graduate degrees in history.
- a set of lessons drawn from past events to guide us in the future.
- a long list of names and dates.
- ideas, concepts, art forms, etc., that are now out-of-date.
- the unfolding of God's plan.
- a section of the bookstore with a whole lot of books on the Civil War.
People think they know what history is, and I think most carry around several of these definitions in their head at once, and others, too. I think the one I most favor is #7, and not just because of what I do. It's the least problematical - I can actually show you real, live human beings who work in universities, call themselves historians, and who more or less agree on a set of disciplinary practices. The rest I either disagree with, or would have a very hard time proving. Notice the difference between #5 and #6. Most people probably think historical writing is #5, or at least is supposed to be, but really, it's closer to #6. The past is gone, however present it may be. We have only traces, and we try to put together the jigsaw puzzle with only a few of the pieces. I pound away at this idea with students. The ones who get it usually wind up asking, "Wait a minute, how do we know what we read is true?" Aaaaahhhhh, well, now that's a question worth asking.
Don't expect me to answer it. (More on this later.)