U.S. Intellectual History Blog

What is History?

I mentioned a few weeks ago that a professor of mine, Matthew Whitaker, always started each course with the question “What is history?” I’ve continued that tradition in several of my classes. The trick is to take what students give and spin it out to something more complicated. I’m also trying to decide if I should assign The Historian’s Paradox by Peter Charles Hoffer or use it to inform my own answers (I find the choice between what I assign and what I personally read a difficult one. I want students to read everything, when in fact I need to assign only the most compelling and most important).


What students might answer:
*The past
*Writing the past
*People who don’t know the past are doomed to repeat it.

Some things I might raise:


*Situating a person/place/thing/event in time and space.
*The science of context (what would be the humanities corollary for those who consider history more of a humanity than a social science?)
*History doesn’t repeat, but it does rhyme. (Mark Twain)
*As Varad mentioned in a comment–the past only exists in the present.
*Impossible and necessary. (Peter Charles Hopper)
*As Varad mentioned in his guest post–“The compulsion to coordinate past and future so as to be able to live at all is inherent in any human being.”  Reinhart Koselleck

I think it’s important for students to understand the relationship between the past and the present, as well as the way that history writing contextualizes events.

Also, particularly important for the methods class I am teaching in the fall, students need to understand that history is constructed, but that does not mean it is purely relative. Rather, it is based on something “real” that is established through documents and accounts and then written down only through many choices about what to include and exclude.

An assignment I might do the first class to push students to think through the construction of history: I have a student in my seminar who is studying abroad in South Africa this summer. I helped to plan the internship that he is on as part of my postdoc. I was thinking about asking the class to work in groups to briefly reconstruct his trip–what types of sources would they search for? What kinds of questions would they ask? Would it be best to tell it from his perspective? What other perspectives could be taken? There are a lot of online sources, plus one group could interview him during class. Part of the point will be to see how each group emphasizes different elements of his trip based on the sources they found. It will also be a good way to assess where their research skills are at the beginning of the course.

Anything to add to my list of how to explain what history is the first day of a new class?

*Picture from here

4 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Lauren: I don’t have much time to get into this here, but I’m going to send you a document I use to discuss the “What is history?” question with my students. For the record, I discuss this issue with every class I teach, every semester, regardless of age or maturity. It’s a kind of intellectual warm-up, but I am also generally pleased with the different kinds of discussions that arise with older students. First-year students are horrible at this, but I think it’s necessary for them too. They need to know, or at least be reminded, that there are bigger issues at stake than memorizing dates and names (i.e. cultural literacy). – TL

  2. Ooh, I’m getting name checked now. Nice!

    Anyway, What is history? Let us count the answers:

    History is bunk.
    – Henry Ford

    History is a pack of tricks the living play upon the dead.
    – Voltaire

    History will teach us nothing.
    – Sting

    It’s not made by great men.
    – Gang of Four

    History is philosophy teaching by example.
    – Dionysius of Halicarnassus (or others)

    History is written by the victors.
    – Traditional

    Historia magistra vitae est.
    – Cicero

    Lauren, I think this is fabulous, but recommend you decide how philosophical as opposed to practical you wish to be. For the methods class, I would recommend you be as philosophical as you dare. You can get into such things as the ontological status of the past, how the observer’s location in spacetime impacts his observations of history, the epistemology of history, whether it’s a social science or humanity (the latter, I will maintain ’til I breathe no more), what the relationship of the past is to history (never identical). If you’re feeling like gambling it all, you can bring in time. All of that can fly in methods.

    For freshmen or a non-specialist class, I’d try to frame the issues in more practical terms. By this I don’t mean that you should ignore the philosphy, but that you should try to present them in ways they can grasp with more immediacy. For example, get them to think of themselves as having histories and how what happened in the past affects them. Get them to wonder about how their parents met, their grandparents, why they’re in America as opposed to another country, that sort of thing. From there you can get them to consider how past, present, and future are inseparable and can’t really exist without each other. Remind them that one day they will be the past some future students will be thinking about.

    Herder has a great passage where he remarks that “every human being in every age stands in the middle” between his ancestors and descendants. In this vein, I love Marx’s proto-existentialist remarks at the beginning of The Eighteenth Brumaire about how “Men make their own history” but in circumstances they do not choose but are born into.

    With advanced students, you can spin that off into a philosophical discussion about what the future is? what the past is? do humans control their own destiny? etc. With freshmen, you could use this as a way to introduce a discussion about why they are taking the class in the first place. For a requirement, obviously, but why is it required?

    At GW (alma mater to myself, Andrew Hartman, and recent guest post author, Chris Hickman), all students in the international affairs school are required to take several history surveys. Obviously, some sort of “special relationship” is believed to exist between history and foreign policy. But why? Or, as I asked Chris after he presented a paper to the department on how the architects of the Alliance for Progress tried to frame it as a new version of the Marshall Plan (I paraphrase): “Is this an argument in favor of the Elliott School requiring its students to take history classes, or an argument against the Elliott School requiring its students to take history clases?”

    Everyone laughed, but no one could answer. Five years later, I still can’t. But much – or more – of the point in being a historian is trying to.

  3. Laura, this is a great post. I’ve started classes with the “what is history?” activity in my High School before, and it works great. Your plan to use a student’s trip as a basis for planning research is really great, and I hope it goes well.

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