his·to·ry n., pl. -ries. 1. a statement of what has happened. 2. a systematic, chronological account of important events connected with a country, people, individual, etc., usually with an explanation of causes, effects, etc. 3. a known past. 4. all past events considered together; course of human affairs. 5. the branch of knowledge or study that deals with the record and interpretation of past events.
make history, a. to influence or guide the course of history. b. to do something spectacular or worthy of remembrance
[< Latin historia < Greek historía ]
~ selectively adapted from The World Book Dictionary
History is one of those words that seems loaded with additional little meanings. We use it in the context of “a history” (as in between two combatants), case history, product history, personal history, family history, etc. It appears in the jargon of fields and professions that have little to do with the history that is taught in schools. In general, it is confidently used to refer to the past.
But, what past, or whose? From an academic standpoint, history is more confined to a particular type of study and a specific type of culture. For example, history does not extend to the earliest origins of homo Sapien or human remains–that’s anthropology. Nor, is it the historian’s primary function to research the past through material objects–that’s archaeology. History is the study of the past through documents. There is often overlap with these fields and each informs the other. Many specialists have experience with the study of one or two of these other fields in addition to their own.
History is researched through the documentation of past cultures and, where applicable, through oral histories. In other words, it is the study of past cultures through their own language, written and composed, by themselves about themselves. Through these texts, historians compile evidence to interpret what happened in the past. History, counter to stuffy history teachers all over (does anyone recall Professor Binns of Hogwarts), is not so much the study of facts; while there are many possible wrong answers (watch any film Hollywood has done of a past event), there is rarely one “right” answer. A historian is always taking someone else’s word for what has happened; so, a nihilist can argue that we cannot really know anything about the past, but that is an extreme, even dangerous, point of view that defies logic and human reason. There are facts for which historians are totally confident: George Washington existed, was a general for the Continental army and the first president of the United States of America. But, once one considers his motives and moral outlook, for example, one relies upon sources, assembles evidence and makes an argument. Here again, other fields may well inform one’s interpretation.
As humans go through stages of developing and relying on texts, there is a desire to record the present to remember it for the future. These chronicles are some of our earliest sources and many of them include “origin histories” that the culture has created about itself with a mix of collective memory and creation myth. Some of these eventually leapt from fabled chronicle to written works, such as the Epic of Gilgamesh. Our earliest evidence of Gilgamesh comes from the kings lists–a style of chronicle that records the major events of a king’s reign–but, ultimately the tale transitions from the lists to a mythic history recorded on clay tablets, written in cuneiform–a written language type that was created by a triangular stylus tip pressed into soft clay which was then fired to harden it.
The first history written in the western tradition is written by the Greek Herodotus, roughly 450-430 BC. His Histories are the first example of a researched and elaborated prose narrative about a past event. Why does he write it? As John Burrow writes in A History of Histories,
As was to become customary, at the beginning of his work Herodotus tells us why he wrote it. It was, he says, “so that human achievements may not be forgotten in time, and great and marvelous deeds–some displayed by the Greeks, some by the barbarians–may not be without their glory; and especially to show why the two peoples fought with each other.” In other words his history was a monument, a marker set down against the oblivion with which time threatens all human deeds. He was successful beyond all reasonable expectation. We are still reading his account of his great theme…
~ John Burrows, A History of Histories
Herodotus proved to be a trendsetter. Thucydides and Xenonphon and plenty of other Greeks also wrote histories–reasoned, researched, elaborated histories of their contemporary version of modern history. The Romans adopted up the practice as witnessed by Livy, Polybius, Julius Caesar and Tacitus, to name but a few examples. It will be borne proudly into the medieval period with the early vanguard of Gregory of Tours and Bede, continued by Einhard, later Oderic Vitalis onward to William of Tyre, Froissart and Machiavelli–I am leaving out hundreds of historians (based on what has survived and been researched) from the medieval period, contrary to many erroneous assumptions about the “Dark Ages”. In the Enlightenment age, history will start to acquire rules of operation that signify its transition into the modern field, today–but, its scope is far more extensive, not to mention interesting, than that of the Enlightenment.
Herodotus also provides us the first reason motivation to record a history–a monument to remember peoples that would otherwise be forgotten. It is not, however, the only reason. History can be written to find facts, as narrative storytelling, as a model for human experience, as a moral or strategic example or an exploration of change. It is the mental excursion into a foreign culture, separated from us by geography and chronology. This is why it is so important!
As history teaches us something about the past, it teaches us something about the world. It is something applicable in every age and generation. History helps us to understand cultures and societies. It explains how the present emerges from past decisions. It teaches us that other people are different, but comprehensible if one chooses to make the time. It is absolutely essential in an ever-shrinking world that operates, increasingly, in close contact.
From the study of history, students learn essential skills. History teaches critical reading skills, challenging students to ask about a primary source’s perspective and bias, or the quality of a secondary source’s research–skills that have become even more necessary for citizens discerning which chain e-mails, blogs, news reports or tweets are reliable sources. It also teaches recognition of cause and effect–an essential ability for every citizen, granted the privilege and tasked with the responsibility to participate in government by the people, to recognize that today’s realities are the effects of past causes and are often tied to government action or inaction.
History is arguably one of the most important subjects we, as a society, ask students to study–it is also often one of the worst and most unimaginative taught in our schools, today. There are a variety of reasons for this and thus no easy fixes, but it would certainly help if more people recognized the importance and the value of the subject. The precise memorization of dates is not as necessary as was once believed, but the practice of investigation is extremely important. I have written on this aspect of history, that of the process, before and encourage one to follow this link to read about detective work and prosecution as a metaphor for history and how I have introduced the subject to my classes.
We get our modern word history from the ancient Greek, as seen in the definition at the top. It meant “a learning by inquiry, inquiry… knowledge so obtained, information… an account of one’s inquiries, a narrative, a history,” (Greek-English Lexicon, Liddell and Scott–the “Middle Liddell” edition). The word does not mean “his story”, implying a misogynist field of interest, and increasingly the field has expanded techniques to wring the most amazing insight from sources about peoples previously though to be left out of history (deliberately or accidentally–usually both) or beyond the purview of history. It still means inquiring, today! This means exercising on one’s curiosity through attainable skills. It is incumbent upon teachers and parents to kindle this curiosity and instruct students in the skills of this field of inquiry. History is the one of the most important gifts we give to the future.