What is History? Part 1

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Desmond Morton with Governor General Johnston

Throughout the year in Canadian History, Law, and Canada in the Contemporary World, we will be exploring an incredibly rigourous and difficult question: What is History? Over the past few thousand years in both the West and East, historians have been grappling with the how and why of history.

As such, as a learning community, we will be exploring this question together and we will try to offer new understandings as a group and as individuals. To do so properly, however, we will need to speak to elders and experts in the field and listen to what they have to say. Each week we will look at a text, listen to an historian, and/or look at alternative perceptions of history and the doing of history.

As we use Desmond Morton’s A Short History of Canada as our main text in this course (and because Dr. Morton is an SJR alum and Rhodes Scholar), we will seek his wisdom first. Last week, he emailed me his interpretation of history:

History is another word for “experience”  and experience is our best way to profit from the errors our ancestors made because they had not really understood what was happening. At the moment, this is most apparent in U.S. policy toward the Middle East.

When I “do” history, I try to move my mind back to the era I am considering and to read whatever survives or is available in writing from that era.  Our forebears lived in an environment of belief and custom that, in many ways, has changed out of recognition.  

Usually we have some understanding of why our contemporaries behave and react as they do because we are pressured by parents, teachers and other authority figures to behave in much the same way that they were taught. The young grow up in a world shaped by social media and forms of  technology that simply did not exist a generation ago.  If we look at the Great War of 1914-18, we must look back a full century, to a time no living human being can now remember directly. To know how and why our ancestors did what they did, we must do our best to understand them and their time.  Those who enjoy history welcome the chance to understand those strangers we call our forebears.

                                                                Desmond Morton, OC, CD, FRSC.

                                                                Hiram Mills Professor of History emeritus

                                                                McGill University

Now it’s your turn. Based on Dr. Morton’s insight here and the introduction to his book, what do you take from his understanding of history? Can you take it and further it? Spin it? I look forward to your thoughts and ideas.

Systems Thinking: A Definition

From Capra (2007):

When we walk out into nature, living systems are what we see first. First, every living organism, from the smallest bacterium to all the varieties of plants and animals (including humans), is a living system. Next, the parts of living systems are themselves living systems. A leaf is a living system. Every cell in our bodies is a living system. Finally, communities of organisms, including both ecosystems and human social systems sun as families, schools, and other human communities, are living systems.