What is History? Part 2

Dr. Cian McMahon, UNLV

Dr. Cian McMahon, UNLV

Last week, Dr. Morton gave us a tremendous amount to think about as he equated history with experience. ¬†This week, we shift gears a bit (and geography) and look at Dr. Cian McMahon‘s understanding of history. Dr. McMahon teaches at UNLV but grew up in Winnipeg. Does his understanding agree with that of Dr. Morton? Where are the differences? Where are the similarities? How do they inform your understanding?

Here are his comments:

Anyway, what the hell, I have locked the door and turned off the phone and am going to pound out a couple of paragraphs on “What Is History” for you–can you copy-and-paste it into your blog? I’ve actually been thinking about the question over the past couple of days since receiving your email so here goes…
WHAT IS HISTORY?
“What is history?” It’s a good question because at first glance the answer seems obvious: a record of the past. And yet once you scratch the surface, you realize that history is much more than a bald catalogue of past names and events. In fact, history is just another tool used by humans to make sense of the present.
But that definition, by itself, does not really give you much to chew on, so try this: between now and the spring, when you are trying to decide what history is, try looking at how we study history. What dates/people/events do we focus on? In so doing, you will see what purposes history is serving.
Some concrete examples: in the old days, history was basically a list of names and deeds of powerful white men. Why? Because powerful white men ran contemporary society. To legitimate their authority, they presented a picture of past society that was… dominated by powerful white men. Nowadays, historians are more interested in investigating how women and indigenous peoples impacted past societies. Why? Because women and indigenous peoples have acceded to positions of power in today’s society and bourgeois liberal academics (to be honest, like myself) want to legitimate that change. They and I believe that the diversification of the polity was a change for the better. If a dog ever gets elected to Parliament, you can rest assured that books and articles will soon appear showing how dogs impacted politics in the old days.
WHAT IS DOING HISTORY?
There are two inter-twined parts to “doing” history.
The first is consumption. This is mostly through reading but it can also be through video documentaries, radio dramas, museums, etc. But the consumption of history is not a passive activity. As you consume history, you ought always be thinking. What message was the person who created this book/video/exhibit trying to get across? What parts did they conveniently leave out?
The second part is production. You need to produce new history. Unfortunately, for a long time, all students below a PhD program were expected to ONLY CONSUME history and NEVER PRODUCE it. But thanks to the internet (and fantastic teachers like Mr. Henderson), students of all ages are now being enabled to produce their own versions of the past. But as you produce history, remember to keep thinking. What message am I trying to get across? What parts am I conveniently leaving out?
Ultimately, you will find that in order to PRODUCE good history, you will need to patiently CONSUME a bunch of it first. But once you start producing it, exciting things can happen.
What is your message going to be?
Cian T. McMahon, PhD
Department of History
University of Nevada, Las Vegas