What is History? (Term Test Edition)

6a00d8341bf7f753ef01b8d0a244ce970cAs part of your Term 1 test, participants in the History of Canada, the History of the United States, and the History of Modern China courses will need to contemplate what they mean by history. Specifically, what is history, what do we mean by the doing of history, and how do we do history? Members of our learning communities are asked to ponder what they think history is and then offer their personal philosophy and methodology.

Last night, I listened to Margaret McMillan’s lecture on CBC’s Ideas on what history might be. Have a listen if you get a chance. Once again, she has challenged me on my naive notions of history. I also love the way the program’s host, Paul Kennedy, introduces us to the idea of history.

This term, we have looked closely at the positioning of Desmond Morton, an SJR grad, Rhodes Scholar, and author of our History of Canada text, Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States, and Odd Westad, who wrote Restless Empire.

In the History of Canada, we also looked at what Thomas King called history in the Inconvenient Indian, while those in the History of Modern China examined the process of Michael Dillon. Peter Stearns offers another interpretation of why we do history.

In this space, let’s enter into a dialogue as to what we think history is, why we do it, and how we do it. Let’s ensure that we are precise, that we use evidence, and that we are kind to each other when we respond.

Here is one example of an historian describing what he does. How can his understanding inform our discussion? What is history to him? Why do we do history?

Here is another historian taking about the use of memory:

To help massage our dialogue, I leave you with David Christian’s explanation of “Big History.” Is this an history?

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90 thoughts on “What is History? (Term Test Edition)

  1. History is a study of the past, it’s events, and the story of how we got to where we are now. We do history using multiple different tools allowing us to think historically, and we evaluate the events of the past using those same tools. When we do history, it is important we ask questions. Questions of why did this happen, and then assessing how the consequences are tied back to the cause. We must also learn to open up our minds. Things were very different in the past, the ideas and morals people had, and to judge them with our current morals is not always quite fair. We must adjust our judgment of the past using historical judgment. We must determine whether or not it was a reasonable action made at the time by those who made it before drawing conclusions. Another major aspect of doing history is understanding what has changed in the world and what has stayed the same. With an understanding of what ideas stuck and what got thrown away we can learn about how we got to today, and speculate what might happen in the future. When doing history, we must also take into account who wrote history. Who gets to decide what is historically significant? A large part of history is determining what is more important in comparison to other events. What is considered to be important is very much up to who wrote history. For example, WWI is considered to be the, if not one of the biggest events in modern history and, the Taiping rebellion is not even close to being viewed as important at all by many western standards. This is very odd considering the Taiping rebellion killed 20 million people, while WWI killed only 10 million people, half as much. This is why when we do history it is our job to make decisions on whether an event should be considered an important one. When we do history, we take the past and make a hypothesis. Then we put it under investigation using our historical thinking tools and, we use evidence based decision making to draw our conclusions. Using all these tools to do history, we learn about why the World is like it is, how to solve our problems, how to treat certain peoples. Most importantly, history gives us the ability to look into the future to try and prevent problems before they become too serious, and before disaster strikes.

  2. Read this one rather than the first, more detail etc… :
    What is History?
    History is a collection of past events, whether it’s written, oral, or passed along through generations. Most of these events that we talk about and refer to as history are significant, and have shaped or taken society into a new way or have changed it. Which in my opinion isn’t the case because I think that anything that has happened in the past and we know off (have record off) should be considered as history. Although many people have different perceptions of what history is, they argue what they think is significant and what has had great impact. Desmond Morton, a great historian claims that history is our shared experiences; that’s one perception of it. Another perception from Howard Zinn is that it’s the job of “the thinking people” as well that we have to accept the past of anything and judge it without condemning it, but looking at it ethically as well. In the end although I think, when you talk about history all that matters is if the events of the past had something to do with that affected us. For example the world wars; they definitely changed aspects of our society, they have made us more cautious. Not only that but, history is supposed to help us learn from our mistakes, we have to use it to our advantage, it’s a source for us too look back upon and reflect. When we talk about history, everyone has a different opinion of what it is, but it just has to be something that has happened in the past and we have records of it happening; and we can use it to learn and to our advantage.

    Why do we do History? We do history because we need to learn about what has happened and the past, and it’s important for us to know. As well we need to use this as started before to learn from it and it’s our past memories that will help develop our futures ones. As well how do we do history and what do we mean by it? We do history as Howard Zinn puts it, “by not condemning actions, but looking at the facts.” I think that is exactly how we should do it, we should do it by thinking what is significant, and if it has carried along with us today. We have to look at things and judge them based on what we know and differ from right or wrong. By doing history we mean that it’s something we acknowledge has happened in the past. It makes us think about life then and how different it is now, and how it has changed.

  3. History pertains to the the study of past events. It tells people about the success and failures of important people, societies, and civilizations . From the day we our born to the day we die, we are making history. It might not be the kind future generations read about in textbooks but we do make our personal history and contribute to the history of our families Different events bare a different amount of significance to each person that reads it. History can be shown in different ways, orally, written or digitally. History tells us about past events and warns us not to make the same mistakes, others show the course course of history. We cannot change the event of the past all we can do is move on with our lives and create more history and memories each and every day. Things won’t always be the same as history decides how we move forwards into the present and to the future. It ties us to the past and lets us hold onto the things we hold dear in our lives. We must keep talking about history to keep it alive or else history would be forgotten and we would keep making the same mistakes that history warned us not to repeat.

  4. The definition of history is a very complex concept, and it can be interpreted in various ways by different people. As defined by the Oxford Dictionary, history is “the study of past events, particularly in human affairs”

    To me, history is way more than just the study of past events in human affairs. In our lives, we all leave a mark. The mark we leave can be as big as WWI or just simply a memory in one’s mind, but everyone leaves a trace of themselves somewhere in the world. History is about the shared experiences, it is actually a story from the past made up by the mark everyone left. As historians, we can recollect these experiences and compare our past, present and future.

    We study history because it documents our memories and actions from the past, we can learn and grow from our mistakes in the past and prevent them from happening in the future, after all “Those who don’t know history are destined to repeat it.” -Edmund Burke.
    When doing history, we need to open up our minds and think outside the box. We need to think in a historical perspective, identify historical significance, explore continuity and change, identify cause and consequences, make ethical judgements and as well as finding good evidence from primary and secondary sources to support your answer. Historians are like detectives, we use these six historical thinking tools to investigate a certain event, then using evidence to support our conclusion. By using these tools, we are able to gain a better understanding of why the world is like it is today.

  5. I believe that history is best defined as events from the past, whether personally significant or not, that form and shape mankind. History is being created everyday, and everything we do has an effect on the future. I agree with what Niels said about the ability to distort histories. History is extremely dependant on the historians distortion or interpretation of an event. For example, when reading Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of The United States, I feel as though I am learning a whole new side to events that I thought I knew, such as Christopher Columbus’ expeditions and his interactions with the Natives. From Howard Zinn we are able to view history from the perspective of the masses as opposed to the higher classes. I think that it is important to study history using a variety of sources from different historians to develop a better understanding of an event.

    When doing history we must first ask a question. Many of us do this regularly out of curiosity and interest in the events and people that have brought us to where we are today. Once asking a question, research must be done to learn about the topic, however, I believe in order to fully understand the history or in order to conclude and extract useful information we must be willing to interpret it and build an argument. It is crucial to analyze different views of the situation before formulating an argument. Once researching different views it is fair to interpret the information in a way that makes sense to you and this is what makes history unique and personal. This is how we relate to events in the past and decide what is historically significant.

    As historians (which we all are) we use six main concepts when looking back on events in the past. We establish historical significance, use primary source information, identify continuity and change, analyze cause and consequence, take historical perspectives, and understand ethical dimensions of history. I agree with what Luke said about how we must dissect history and synthesis it to fully take away an argument and fully understand the past. It is not enough to just know the facts but we must be able to draw conclusions from what we have learned and apply it. Without the ability to analyze the past, we as a race would not be able to evolve or progress as easily and we would be in a very different position today.

  6. I believe that Margaret MacMillan explains history in a unique way by comparing it to a house, one that has been built upon over many generations. She illustrates that the house is old in some areas and modern in others, as well as being filled with many different people from different eras. She describes the caretakers of the house as being the historians, further explaining that some care more about the building, while others care more about the inhabitants. In doing so she stresses the fact that there always has to be a balance between the two. In this metaphorical representation I believe she means that the actions you have and the traces you leave behind will impact future generations. I believe that history is the study of past activity. It can be recorded through various means such as technological, written, verbal, or through artifacts of some sort. Everyone creates his or her own personal history everyday, this may not have a great impact on humanity; however, it is still relevant in the shaping of your individual self. One’s individual history, big or small, forms others perceptions of you, and the future.

    I completely agree with Margaret MacMillan when she states, “there is no correct way of doing history”. History is a very subjective topic; it is the historian’s interpretation of the primary source evidence that we have available. There doesn’t ever appear to be a concrete reason as to why an event took place, or why a person, or a group of people acted in a certain way. I believe your interpretation extensively depends on the type of person you are. I believe that one’s own personal situation or life experience influentially alters one’s interpretation of the facts presented. It is also possible that one’s retelling of the past is different from another’s because he/she deems certain events to be more relevant than others; therefore, emphasizing certain ones while understating others. It is impossible to create an unbiased history in my opinion. For example, many historians praise Columbus, which they are permitted to do; however, Howard Zinn believes that by not describing his cruelties,“…we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes that are buried in containers under the earth”(9). Both of these viewpoints are valid, further proving my point that the process of doing history is subjective.

    We do history by asking questions about our past and by using primary source evidence to try and explain certain events. In doing so I believe that we have to examine as MacMillian puts it, “the great forces of history”. These forces are what may have impacted a particular person or a group of people, to adopt a certain belief. These forces could be based on the economic state, the demographic, the geography, popular ideas, or political shifts of that time. Therefore, I believe that in order to report history in the most “honest” form it is important to consider all of these factors when answering the question at hand.

  7. History depends on how you view it. If you view history from a more broad perspective, it is just like David Christian said, it’s a combination of the threshold moments within the time that our world begun up until today. If you view history from a much more microscopic perspective it is, just like Dr. Alessandro Portelli said, the things that we choose to both remember and forget.
    We do history because without having the knowledge of our history, we won’t learn anything new. We will be stuck in this loop where we will keep repeating past discoveries and events etc. David Christian said that DNA produced organisms with brains, that accumulate information and learn, but when they die that information that they have learned, dies with them. Christian continued to say, however, we as humans have language, a system of communication that is powerful and precise, and can be shared, learned, and accumulated in our collective memory from generation to generation, and this is why we have history (it is also one way of how we determine history). We as humans possess the ability to “do history” and we thankfully use this ability. If we did not do history, like I said before, we would learn nothing new and learning and accumulating knowledge is what allows us as humans to prosper and thrive, and that is why we do history.
    We actually do history in many different ways, but these ways are all correlated. We do history by remembering, forgetting, and finding information from the past, and we keep this information going from generation to generation by sharing it with others by documenting it, whether it be through writing, orally, displays, artifacts, art, etc. We as humans remember history, but in a weird way. Just like Dr. Alessandro Portelli said, we tend to hold on to and remember the memories that make us feel good about ourselves, memories that paint us as the heroes or victims. We hardly ever hold onto the memories that present us as perpetrators, accomplices or the bad guys. Now why do we do that? Well, it’s because, just like Dr Portelli said, people believe that memories are bad, because they lead to past mistakes being repeated, and this is where we are wrong. Dr. Alessandro Portelli talks about how in 2012 the Italians overlooked the Italian invasion of Libya in 1912, which was the context of the first ariel bombing in human history, where the Italians started to introduce concentration camps in the dessert. Libyans resisted the Italians for 30 years, but no one ever told the Italians this (in the future). The Italians chose not to remember that they bombed Libya in 1912, therefore they “celebrated the 100th anniversary [of this occurrence] by bombing Libya again, in 2012”. The Italians chose to forget that they bought thousands of Libyan resisters to concentration camps and jails in Italy, and as a result Italy is still giving the same treatment to Libyan refugees and other refugees coming from war torn countries to Italy and Europe today. The Italians forgot the past and this caused them to repeat it. Wait a minute, the Italians repeated a past mistake that they didn’t even know about, because they chose to forget it? I guess forgetting significant memories from the past isn’t exactly the answer to a bright future. However, this does not mean that we need to remember everything from the past because, like Dr. Portelli said, when you remember everything, you actually remember nothing. Memory is a place that is a permanent search for meaning and in order to find meaning, you need to filter out the insignificant things by forgetting them, and weed out the manipulated memories that are hiding the genuine ones. We also, like Dr. Portelli said, tend to forget the memories that hold too much meaning for us to comprehend, therefore we suppress them, but these memories come back to haunt us. Memory is something that we can maybe control, but not suppress. In order for countries to thrive and prosper they need to look at where it hurts. Dr. Portelli said that in 2011, in Italy, the 150th anniversary of Italian independence took place, and it became politically correct to wave the Italian flag and acknowledge the unification of Italy a.k.a Risorgimento, as a positive thing. Dr Portelli said that Risorgimento means a re-birth, and it is like Italy was dead and now it was coming alive. Dr. Portelli quoted Tony Morisson who said that “anything dead coming back to life hurts.” Therefore Dr. Portelli concluded that the Italians cannot understand the meaning of Italy coming back to life unless they find out “where it hurts”. What Dr. Portelli is saying is that the Italians need to acknowledge the hardships that they went through during the resistance, in order to really understand Risorgimento. In order to succeed and flourish as a race we cannot suppress or forget significant memories from the past, no matter how painful and awful they are. We as humans remember and forget history, and we keep this history going by sharing information and this is because we have language, which I have explained in the previous paragraph (with the help of David Christian). Lastly, “for a lot of people, objects speak more powerfully than words” – Stephen Aron, and I completely agree. History is presented in many ways, but physical objects from the past serve as vessels for the past events that have effected so many people so profoundly. Therefore these objects hold great significance to people.
    History can be perceived and interpreted in many different ways, but we must acknowledge our history no matter how painful it might be, because without the knowledge of the past our growth and evolution as a race will start deteriorating at an immense speed.

  8. Wow, I would like to start, very informally, by saying that all the historians past me defined different aspects of history very interestingly. I read a few and picked up some similar themes and concepts. Ryan explained morals and the importance of history with a great example. Alexandra claimed that we have to use more than primary resources to determine history. We have to look at interpretations and study it. Luke went into depth and talked about many things that opened up my perspective more.

    I could write to you about the importance of history because we learn from our mistakes or how it’s important to recognize the evolution of humankind. I’m not going to do that. But instead I am going to bring up completely “unimportant” examples.

    Now, a person’s medical records is part of history. It documents the health history a person has had in that country. Suppose as I am writing this I am also eating a random sandwich that I picked up from a cafeteria. 1….2…3…. bite. Now let’s look into the future. A minute later I would start to choke and people are rushing to help me. As the paramedics come and help me they look at my medical records. If my medical history didn’t say I was, suppose, allergic to ham and the chef that day hadn’t kept a record of the type of sandwiches he had made that day, then the treatment I would have gotten wouldn’t be as fast and easily recognizable as it could have been.

    Now a personal account I have is about my weak ankle. The Manitoban government has many x-rays from my three ankle fractures. During my most recent injury, after I got an x-ray, the first thing the doctor did was pull up my past (historical) x-rays. He compared a few to my recent one and told me instantaneously that I had, again, fractured the exact same bone as my last two times.

    Also, on some absurd level, suppose someone doesn’t own a computer and aren’t politically literate and know nothing about the conflicts in the Middle East. This person decides to book a nice spa vacation in Syria. Once, he gets there his vacation turns out to be nothing like the one he had planned (keeping in mind this is a very out there example).

    What’s the point of learning history? So, that we don’t make mistakes like the above mentioned man. Going on a spiel about what everyone has heard a 100 times: these three examples I believe will help justify why history is important. We need to keep records and revisit them often to not only learn from mistakes but also because they can save a life. The first paragraph I had written in this essay is history and while it is such a small insignificant detail right now who knows, maybe I will become a famous historian and all my essays will be valuable.

    History isn’t just about the ancient times. It can be the smallest insignificant thing or something important like your past medical records. By looking at past events and analysing it we can make and improve many things in the future or have a better understanding of situations so that we don’t repeat past mistakes. History is also bias. Often we hear one side and believe it. That is why it is very very important to learn all aspects of history and use all the 6 historical thinking concepts. As Jason said, we need to look at as many sides and comparing primary and secondary resources. I also believe that to be a global citizen we need to have an understanding of the world’s history and politics. In our society of social media and online newspaper it is very important to know about the major global events and to develop a solid opinion so that we are more involved and integrated into society.

    In conclusion, I am going to ask myself, again, what is history? Honestly, I have no idea how to define it. I think that me currently sitting on my bed writing this is history. Sure, it’s insignificant, but does that really matter? Aren’t I making history? These questions make my brain very, very confused. We simply do history all the time, even after we die. I mean Michael Jackson became a total hit after he died and now everyone knows about him. Sometimes even before we are born. Many people get excited about royal or celebrity yet-to-be-born babies. Why do we do it? Well I believe my past paragraphs explain why we would want to do it. As James A. Baldwin said, “People are trapped in history and history is trapped in them.”

  9. In my opinion, history is the convergence of the perspectives of the past events, which is based on the facts, judgements and personal views. Facts refer to the primary sources, while judgements represent the perspectives as well as the ethical judgements of the events. From The Fall of Imperial China by Frederick Wakeman Jr., “only allow diplomatic relations within the traditional tribute system that had evolved out of centuries of Chinese cultural leadership in Asia”. And “were immediately resisted and seen as challenging the Chinese way of life”, the requests of King George are reasonable while the behaviours of the Emperor Qian Long are considered disrespectful and his choice of refusing more trading with England is thought to be unwise and uncomprehensive. But based on the letter from Qian Long to King George, Frederick Wakeman Jr. can’t get the result directly. He made judgements of the behaviour to analyze the causes and consequences of the event, the historical significance of the event, and whether there are hidden secrets behind.
    Someone may define history as a record of the past events. I disagree. When historians are doing history, the causes and consequences of the event, the hidden secrets behind, all the info related with the event which they are trying to find out can’t be absolutely the same as when it took place. Furthermore, the knowledge of the past hasn’t brought easy solutions to problems in issues such as the South China Sea Issue, the political relationship between China and other Asian countries, etc. However, without a thorough knowledge of the past events and circumstances, we couldn’t even attempt to grapple with these questions. More importantly, the inability to acquire truth isn’t the excuse of why we don’t need to do history. In contrast, it is the motivation of doing it. Because when we are doing history, we are approaching the truth. Some may say, “If there’s a low possibility to reach the truth, why do we do history then? Is it worth it?” Yes, definitely worth so. Why? Because we are human! Humans think! We do history to prove the significance of human existence, that is, we human search for truth, we think, we judge, we criticize, we overthrow. We also cycle again and again. This is what civilization stands for.

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