What is History?

As a teacher, I’ve often asked this question to my students. Here are some of the answers I’ve received: “the past,” “events from the past,” “important events from the past that shaped our present,” and “things that have already happened.”

While none of these answers are completely wrong, they leave out a critical partner in history: the historian. History is not merely the past, it is the study of the past. Furthermore, the result of this study of the past is not simply the past as it happened; rather, it demonstrates an interpretation of the past. It is these two terms, study and interpretation, that best encapsulate history’s relation to the past as it was. 

While this clarification of the definition of history may seem like an unremarkable complication of the word, it is essential to communicate to students. Often, students are presented with a single textbook narrative of what happened and are left to think that history is merely the recorded past. Beyond the textbook, however, are generations of historians who have gathered and interpreted evidence from primary sources in order to make certain claims about the past. Their consistent willingness to be driven by the evidence and open to new interpretations reveals the complexity of historical study. As historian John Fea has put it, “The past never changes, but history changes all the time.”

With this understanding of history, history becomes a dynamic experience. Students do not need to simply agree with the narrative that is presented to them. They become investigators, using primary sources to construct the past as the evidence presents it. Sure, things like the dates of events and (most times) the people involved are simple facts that do not need to be interrogated with a healthy skepticism. But rather than ending the study of the past at those basic facts, students can use those details as a foundation to explore deeper questions. This is where historical thinking skills come to play, the subject of our next blog post.

When we talk about history, let us remember that it is far more than “the past.” It is the study and interpretation of the past. This study and interpretation frequently revises the story of the past based on new evidence or the viewing of that evidence with new lenses. This makes history a lively discipline, sometimes filled with conversation and consensus and other times with debate and disagreement. In any case, history builds bridges between past and present, and empowers students to make meaning of their learning. It solidifies a type of intellectual exploration that allows them to be active participants in a larger story rather than simply passive listeners of a simplified narrative.