Thursday, August 31, 2006

What is History?

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:

  1. the things that happened in the past.
  2. a record of things that happened in the past, written as it was happening.
  3. a record of things that happened in the past, written after-the-fact.
  4. any individual's thoughts, feelings, opinions about the past.
  5. a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on past events.
  6. a highly specialized form of literature, based in part on records of past events.
  7. an academic discipline carried out by people with graduate degrees in history.
  8. a set of lessons drawn from past events to guide us in the future.
  9. a long list of names and dates.
  10. ideas, concepts, art forms, etc., that are now out-of-date.
  11. the unfolding of God's plan.
  12. a section of the bookstore with a whole lot of books on the Civil War.
  13. bunk.

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.)


nm said...

You left out one of my favorites, "how things got to be the way they are," and its converse, "how things didn't turn out to be the way we would have liked."

Dr.T said...

True, true. There are way too many to keep track of.

Dave said...

My current definition is something like "an open-ended inquiry into the human condition that uses the past as its source material."

I asked my students today "Why do we study history?" and the most common response was so that we don't repeat the mistakes of the past. The second most common was "To learn how things got the way they are."

Not a single person said - "Because it's fun!"