What is History? What is your Story?

Welcome back! I trust you all had a rejuvenating summer holiday and that you were able to reflect on your past learning in order to be able to carry and further that knowledge in 2012/13. Whatever, Henderson!

I had a great summer, thanks to the agrarian model we follow, and I was able to slide in some really fantastic reading. One of the books I read really struck me, not because it was earth-shattering, but because it dealt with the concept of History. At the beginning of the holidays, I picked up Julian Barnes’s The Sense of Ending – a novel about how a middle-aged man reflects on his adolescence, failed marriage, and impending death. Throughout the book, there is an underlying theme about the meaning of history. At the beginning, the main character recalls a History class in his elitist London school whereby the conversation goes as follows, ignited by the teacher “Old Joe Hunt”:

“We could start with the seemingly simple question, What is History? Any thoughts, Webster?”

“History is the lies of the victors,” I replied a little to quickly.

“Yes, I was rather afraid you’d say that. Well, as long as you remember that it is also the self-delusions of the defeated, Simpson?”

Colin was more prepared than me. “History is a raw onion sandwich, sir.”

“For what reason?”

“It just repeats, sir. It burps. We’ve seen it again and again this year. Same old story, same old oscillation between tyranny and rebellion, war and peace, prosperity and impoverishment.”

“Rather a lot for a sandwich to contain, wouldn’t you say?”

We all laughed for more than was required, with an end-of-term hysteria.

“Finn?”

“History is the certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation.”

I had to reread this line a few times. Were these interpretations, including the last one, really what History was about? Is this what I am suppose to teach? What about this last line by Finn? Or is History, like the book, a story? Do we have collective narratives that we debate coupled with our own stories and connections to history? What is Canadian History? Is it different if you are of Hungarian descent or you just moved from Nigeria? Is it merely about military conquest and nationalism? What does it mean to study or read History?

I hope you can help me clarify and refine this critical concept. I have added an interview of Howard Zinn before his death. What is his take on History? How does his story create his own history and his sense of History? How can his interpretation of History differ from the views of the majority?

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22 thoughts on “What is History? What is your Story?

  1. Hi Henderson:Thanks for inviting me to participate in this conversation. My name is Cian T. McMahon and I teach history at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas (UNLV). That's right… "Vegas, baby!"What is history? It is a great question–one of the hoary old chestnuts that teachers like us like to bounce around at the beginning of every term.It is a great question because it hits at the heart of one of the great problems facing humankind–is there such a thing as objective "TRUTH" or (due to the limits of memory and sources) are we really just perpetuating MYTHs of one form of another?We discussed this very question in my class today and the consensus that my students and I came to is that if we think of history as a THING you can measure or evaluate, then we are destined to forever argue over all of its inconsistencies and shortcomings and failures. A fool's errand, I would argue.On the other hand, if we define history as a PROCESS, then instead of having to dump, eradicate, or ignore them, we can embrace all of its inconsistencies, shortcomings, and failures. In so doing, I would argue, we come up with a picture of the past that, while annoying in many ways, is simultaneously more like the present–complicated and often contradictory.I'll close, if I may, by paraphrasing Robert Browning Hamilton's poem about pleasure and sorrow:I walked a mile with Certitude,She chatted all the wayBut I was none the wiserFor all she had to say.I walked a mile with UnsureAnd ne'er a word said she.But oh, the things she taught meWhen Unsure walked with me.Hope these comments help. I look forward to reading what others have to say. CTM

  2. To me, history is a common version of events in the past. This does not necessarily mean it requires hard evidence to be supportable (i.e. There are virtually no, if any, existing eyewitness accounts of history before the classical period). It also does not mean that the history needs to be the most accepted account, as history warps and changes over time, depending on available evidence, social orders, language and so much more. However; in order for something to be considered a version of events, I believe that there must be some sort of collective agreement. This does not have to be a large collective (i.e. Family histories are sometimes disputed between members, but they each remember their own version of events), but the part we learn about most are usually from larger collectives (i.e. World history, national, provincial; social, religion, cultural; etc.). Really, in its truest sense, History is a story about the past. Stephanie F

  3. Mr. Henderson,"What is history?" can be a great question and a mind boggling/blowing question. According to dictionary.com history is "the branch of knowledge dealing with past events." But i find there to be a problem with this definition.Humans today in the 21st century may know for a fact that certain things have happened about one century ago; mainly because of the resources (pictures, videos, etc.). But if history is the branch of KNOWledge dealing with past events it can be agued with.Basically like Clan T. McMahon said, it is a debatable question because it hits the core of one of the biggest problems facing humans which would be if there is such a thing as objective truth or due to the LIMITS of MEMORY and SOURCES are we really just perpetuating 'myths?' of one form of another?What McMahon said about the problem humans are facing with the truth could maybe tie in with religion like christianity and how people interpret the bible seeing how it was written such a long time ago. The resources of what happened in biblical times are all recorded in the bible which may not be as significant resources such as resources like videos or pictures.Seeing how some peoples "story" revolves around religion, history could actually change that if we don't KNOW what things were like back then or interpret the bible like some christians or other people do.So to answer the question what is history? I would maybe have to say it is what people know for a fact and what people think they know happened any period back in time.That's what I think,-Richard Cadogan.

  4. In my opinion, history is what teaches us who we are. It teaches us what we were, what we’ve achieved and what we’ve done wrong and therefore it tells us what we are. It is a story about humans experience and can be used to see what worked out and what didn’t. As previously stated in Stephanie’s blog, it’s hard to actually prove history since there are no eyewitnesses to prove what happened 150+ years ago. However, we still accept history based on what find (artifacts such as bones tools e.t.c). This makes history subjective because it’s up to us as humans to interpret what these evidence of history means. In short, history is a search for the truth about what we have achieved and what didn’t go so well and as put by a wise man “absolute truth is a rare commodity”. – Ramy Boles

  5. What is history? In a perfect world, history would just be a written, spoken or possibly something that was drawn to tell the past. When I say past, I mean the exact events which have occur before this present time. It would only be the facts of what happened and when. But this is not possible because people distort everything even if it is just in a small way. So there is no way to a have a perfectly accurate history.What we are left with is a retelling of events by people, which have been skewed and distorted for various reasons. The human mind cannot recall events in great detail and can cause the chronological order of events to be chained, the events themselves can be altered and things can be left out. Even if someone recalls an event very well, the past can be distorted when it is recorded by which ever means and the past can be skewed when it is being taught to even the smartest people.History is the retelling of the past through the distortion of human beings.-Bryce Dunn

  6. I think that history is something that cannot completely be understood or figured out. Us as humans see history in many different perspectives. History is a collection of events that happened in the past. These events are backed up by primary and secondary sources such as artifacts. One major thing is that history is not something that is set in stone, it can be viewed as a false truth because there is no real solid way to show or tell what exactly happened at that exact moment in time during time periods far in the past. People accept what is said as history based on what we have discovered (Primary, Secondary sources)What is taught in the classrooms in schools in countries such as America portray its own bias towards what happened in the past. They highlight the main achievements and successes of their own past and put it ahead of the other things that happened. American History shows the history in the eyes of the Americans and how the side that won the wars get to write history. The Americans winning the Revolutionary War was a major event in American History and is told on the side of the Americans as one of their major accomplishments as a country.What is not shown very often is the other side of the story. The other end of the wars there were people that has been living and creating their own history but that history is not what is taught in schools or told as stories in America. The Aboriginal people that were living in the "New World" before the Europeans came over has their own history but since they lost the war, their story was not told.History can be defined as many things and can be viewed in many different ways. I think that there is no way to completely know the truth about what really happened in the past but the people that come out on top get to tell what they want people to know about what happened. Everyone has their own story and background with their history but sometimes they are on the other end and their stories never get told fully. – Tim Dang

  7. What do I think about the word ‘history’?When I think of history, I think of the word time. People assume that time is a strict progression of cause of effect, but *actually* from a non-linear, non-subjective viewpoint – it’s more like a big ball of wibbly wobbly… time-y wimey… stuff. (Dr. Who – Blink – 2007) Haha No. But that is what was going through my mind. History is a word, but there are so many ways to describe it that I didn’t know what explanation was the right one. I was stumped.Then I looked at what other people have said, and noticed that Stephanie said that history is just a story, and I would actually agree with that. History *is* just a story, but not just some fairy tale, it’s a story of what actually happened years ago. True stuff that actually happened before we were born. Some history makes us say wow and others makes us wonder why politicians were so dumb back then. BUT STILL! This stuff actually happened, a story of the past.I read another post by Ramy and he talked about facts and how the story is based off of true research and artifacts. But he also talked about history is subjective because sometimes we must interpret history, but it must be still have to interpret the story using what we know and have found.And then I thought about the fact about how history is always changing, obviously we cannot go into a time machine and just change history completely. But every single day, people are discovering new things every day and that changes the way everyone thinks about certain things. For example, a few years ago Pluto was not considered a planet, throughout my childhood, Pluto was my favorite planet because it was small, “Just like me!”. NASA claiming Pluto is not a planet tore my heart out and ripped it shreds HAHA no. But it actually changed the way other people and myself thought about space.But to make the definition a bit smaller, to me, history is a story that has been documented throughout time, proven by artifacts and research, but is still an ongoing process that is changing constantly.–Odile Huynh

  8. History is defined as the study of the past. In my opinion, history is the collection of information / events that have occurred in the past which are meaningful to us human beings because they have influenced us today in one way or another. Without sources from the past who have recorded history, our knowledge would not be as advanced as it is today in things such as technology, politics, etc… This comment is considered history because it was technically written in the past. -Andrew

  9. In my opinion history is the collection of events that have happened in the past. History can also be personal and involve everything that has happened in your life. History can also be related in sports. For example in professional soccer a team’s history would include any trophies the team won or any famous players it had. History is also uncertain in some circumstances. Lots of famous events in history have been distorted. They have been told by people that were involved in these events so we cannot be sure that they are telling us exactly what happened. This is what makes history debatable; there are two sides to every event that happens in it. History is important for countries. It teaches them to learn from the mistakes of countries that have failed in the past and shows them what they should not do. History is uncertain, organized, and educational.- Liam G

  10. What is history?To me, history is everything that has ever happened. Some events may never have been recorded, but it doesn’t mean they didn’t occur. We can never be sure what percent of history is correct due to the fact that the truth may be distorted. Although we may believe our story is accurate, in fact we may be forgetting important pieces of information over time. History is always changing with new discoveries of the past as we unravel more clues. Having a strong knowledge of the past is crucial because it has a funny way of highlighting some of the huge catastrophes and flaws in mankind. Although history is the past, I believe it is also the key to a better future. If we study history and find solutions to our previous errors like conflicts and wars, hopefully we will find a way to not repeat them. -Sarah Hnytka

  11. History to me is like a song on repeat. If you don't do something to change it (learn from mistakes), its doomed to repeat for eternity. If someone in F1 is racing their car at a racetrack and crashes at a certain corner, they are going to go back and make sure it doesn't happen a second time. If they don't learn from their mistake they will keep crashing. In the past many things have happened that are extremely reminiscent of present day events, there have been many genocides throughout history and each one is an example of how we haven't learned from our mistakes. We haven't taken the song off repeat.

  12. History is simply a series of philosophical debates about what happened in the past. As humans, it is natural for us to question the way the world works. We know in order to understand the present and predict the future, we have to understand the past. Everything that exists now is the residual outcome of past thoughts and actions.However, in order to analyze history accurately, there are so many factors to take into consideration. We have to look at dates, times, people, events, objects/artifacts, ways of thinking, ways of life, objectives, contributing factors, etcetera. Most importantly, we have to judge the importance of all information we find that contributes to an event. We have to open our minds up beyond the textbook and look beyond the words in order to see the truth.History in classrooms around the world may be about times, dates, and event descriptions. But what do they mean!?!?! History is more than regurgitated documents. If we do not question who wrote history and who is writing history this very moment, we will never learn the truth about the past and the past in the making.To me, history is history. It is what it is. It cannot accurately be defined in words or dates. Even though the truth of the past may never be discovered because we were not a part of it to know what really happened, history is one of the most important factors in how we live today, how we think, and our sense of value. The truth may not be there, but there is appreciation for what has happened in the past for us to get to where we are now. Long live the King !! … I mean history…- Shuvani

  13. To me history is any event that has happened in the past. Whether it is remembered or not is determined by what happened and who was there to witness it. History is also a series of interpretations of the people who have witnessed history and decided to pass it on to be remembered, however skewed it may be, by the next generation. After a while history is turned into stories and opinions of what happened during certain events of the past rather than it being the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. History does so much to shape who we are today, and I have to completely agree with CTM when he said that history is a "process". Events that have happened years ago still continue to shape whatever happens tomorrow. I particularly liked the way R.G Collingwood put it when he said "History is for human self-knowledge. The value of history, then, is that it teaches us what man has done and thus what man is." Sarah T

  14. History is the recollection of events that have occurred in the past. It is meant to be retold so we know about our origins and ancestors, but it is also for us to learn from past errors we have made. This is due to the fact that history is also an evolving process, and has a tendency to inevitably repeat itself. It must be remembered because it has shaped the people we are today and shows how our country was formed. All history can be twisted in the way it has been recorded due to possible and unavoidable human error; we can never be truly sure of the accuracy of some of these past events. Especially when we go further back in time, these events can be misinterpreted and the complete certainty of their happening is unknown. But overall, history constantly plays a significant role in influencing who we are. -Maia

  15. History is collection of events that have taken place in the past. In my opinion, history is the story of human experience. It is important to know a little bit about what has happened in the past because it helps us see why things are the way they are. It gives us knowledge that helps us make the right decisions by not making the mistakes people did in the past. We live in the present and worry about the future, but without history, there is no future. History has shaped us to be who we are today.Shiza

  16. What is History? Provocative student dialogue worthy of much further discussion. NB: Shakespeare’s well-known play Richard III was based historically upon the work of the court historian of Henry VII, who conquered/killed Richard. No one questioned his sources that Richard killed the two young princes, but was this actually true? Does truth matter more than what’s recorded 600 years later? Is the play “history” or just great human drama? Much of what has been said by student contributors above rings true: history is a written record filled with the richness of bias and personal perspective that often rings true, but it’s not always the “whole story”. Diaries & letters weren’t written for perspective, balance or fairness, but just because of that are the more valuable insights into people and conditions we can relate to. “Histories” written until the mid-20thc carry the favour of the current ruler/political scene and should be read with that in mind. We’ve learned to rely more on the broader social science perspective such as archaeology, art (in all its forms) and architecture. So much to learn about the human condition from these sources. What really happened in history is more a composite than one single document or photograph, however evocative, emotive or powerful it may be. Humans are often moved more by the well illustrated moment than by the breadth and depth of historical understanding. That is who we are and is why Socrates & the Greeks emphasized knowing oneself first and foremost before embracing broader knowledge. You are each at that intellectual cross-roads and what fun it is. Question everything.Dr J

  17. History is something with no end. For as long as events continue to occur history will continue to be recorded, taught and learned. The simple fact that there are so many different interpretations of the same events mean that although there could be one that is correct it is impossible to tell especially for events that have occurred long enough ago that there are no living witnesses. When viewing or researching the many different accounts of events we must be cautious of mistakes but embrace and try to accept even the views that we do not agree with.Although many say that the winners are the ones to record the history of the event, we still see different interpretations of the events from in the case of major wars either victors who have seen that their side has done wrong or members of the losing side who have survived to tell the story. That is why history is so mysterious and can never be truly understood. It would seen that the older the events, the more distorted the events can be. If each person who passes the story on slightly changes it or tries to make it more appealing, as time goes on these stories can turn into tales so far from the truth they are hard to believe. We can see this even in our high schools in the present time. When some silly rumor starts out harmless and with each person it gets passed on through it becomes farther from the truth and more harmful. Imagine these same rumors being passed on over decades and even centuries. This is why so many different interpretations are present in today’s history.

  18. What is history?History is the events of the past. History is shared visually, orally, and by written document. However, when learning about historical events, the viewpoint of who was recording these events must be taken into account. Emotions and how the individual was directly or indirectly affected must be taken into account, as it will affect what we today know as history. Studying history will help to give us a better understanding of our future societal problems. It helps us to understand why things happen in our world the way they do. While technology, and pretty much everything else has changed, the human nature of greed and power has not. This insight can be extremely valuable to those who wish to be leaders or are to make crucial decisions in the future. ~Maria

  19. This is a good question that I don’t believe has a definitive answer. Is history everything that has happened the past? That’s how it defined in the in the dictionary. They say the victors write history but if that is true then it is the victors’ interpretation, which may be manipulated. Some things are not written or have not been discovered yet, is that history too? I don’t believe we will ever know what history exactly is and I think that is why we are so interested in trying to find out.Brett

  20. Hello Mr Henderson! History as I see it is the study of how we as a people came to be. History is definitely one of the most important subjects that a person could learn. If we don't know how we got here, then how will we know how to continue living? We must learn from history, so that we do not repeat the mistakes, but continue to make good decisions as a society. History is an ongoing subject, always being debated, always being added to, and always changing. Most importantly history is ongoing. History will never stop. Our children and our grandchildren are going to learn about the lives we are leading right now. We are in the present but will soon be in the past. We are going to be but memories in the history books which will be read by the future generations, which is why we must learn our ancestors history so that we do not make the same mistakes as they did. History will continue to be written until the earth is finally destroyed billions of years from now. However history is not always true. History is written by those who have won a war, won land, and the one that has been in power. History is also written by those who have hanged heroes, (Quote from the 1995 production "Braveheart" directed by Mel Gibson). History is extremely important and will never end.

  21. There are many ways to define history, as it is a broad definition of multiple subjects. It includes everything that we do because it is always being made. For our purposes we can accurately define history as a collection of our knowledge or others knowledge of the past as well as our views on this. I use the term the past as anything that has happened before this exact moment in time. For example when we come in to law class Mr. Henderson, more often then not, has a case that has just taken place ready for us to discuss. Although it is current it is history because it is recorded and any person can review it from then on. Some people may define history as anything that has happened in the past, even if we have no knowledge of it. I do not agree with this because I believe it is a story that we have and other things we do not know about are “simply the past”.

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