Commentary
12:30 pm
Wed April 3, 2013

Past and Present: The Reality of History

Many in the general public think of history as dry textbooks and the memorization of lists of dates, wars, kings and presidents. But memorizing facts is no more history than practicing free throws is basketball.

History can look deceptively easy: just get the main facts and make sure some unclear areas are more accurate. To those engaged in scholarship, however, there is a much larger, richer story out there.

Credit xmacex / Flickr

The practice requires asking hard questions and looking at the same set of events from different perspectives, even if the results challenge what we once thought or raise uncomfortable conclusions. This involves looking at contexts and trends, the settings in which events take place. It requires understanding the connections between people and ideas.

There is no such thing as “the facts speak for themselves.” Piecing together and telling the story, of which facts are a part, demands an array of skills and techniques.

One of my advisors in college, Phil VanderMeer, liked to insist that all history boils down to two great questions: “Oh yeah?” and “So what?” VanderMeer insisted that he did not come up with this framework, but it is a useful one nonetheless.

The Oh Yeah? question is one that calls for proof and evidence. We have to ask questions of primary sources from the time. Once, the types of sources historians used were fairly narrow: letters, reports, diaries, and other written material. Today, however, historians can look to demographics, popular media, and even what is called “material culture,” literally the “stuff” that people have left behind.

I often say that history is not written by the winners. It is written by the survivors because whatever survives is what we know about the past.

The So What? question involves significance and relevance. Popular discourse talks about “learning the lessons of history,” as if history is a living being who makes pronouncements about right and wrong. Instead, trained historians seek to understand how the world around us functions and how it came to be, moving beyond simplistic explanations to reveal deeper, less obvious connections.

This is a journey that is not closed off to the public, limited to elite “experts.” Far from it! Historian Carl Becker wrote in his famous “Everyman His Own Historian,” that all people use the tools that professional historians do. Professional historians teach classes precisely to help all of us better understand the past and develop tools and techniques to get at the real stuff of history, not just memorize lists!

It takes effort...but the result is well worth it!

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