What is history?
In simplest terms, history is the story of the human experience. While history teaching originally focused on the facts of political history such as wars and dynasties, contemporary history education has assumed a more integrative approach offering students an expanded view of historical knowledge that includes aspects of journalism, geography, religion, anthropology, philosophy, economics, technology, art and society. This wider embrace is sometimes reflected in the vague but ubiquitous term, "social studies."
The nature of history
What, exactly, is this thing we call history? A simple definition might hold that history is the story of human experience. But, this tells us little about the nature of history. Does history describe all of human experience? Where does it get its information? Is history accurate and believable? As teachers we probably should have some conception of the nature of history before we try to teach it. These ideas become especially important as we attempt to include thinking strategies in the body of knowledge taught to our students.
The subject matter of history
I would like to offer for your consideration a potentially disturbing thought that might, in fact, be a valid way to look at history. Here it is: History has no subject matter of its own. History derives its content from other disciplines, especially from the social sciences.
Back in the day - as my students like to say - before the disciplines of political science, economics, archeology, sociology, and journalism had been invented, it was largely history that dealt with these realms of knowledge. Nowadays, in our more complex society, we have developed many newer disciplines that explore their own specialized fields of knowledge in a far more detailed manner than historians possibly can. Economists clearly know more about market forces than most historians do.
History is a verb, not a noun.
Historians, then, are the generalizers, the synthesizers. They look at an event or series of events and try to bring relevant knowledge from all fields to bear on understanding the situation. Viewed in this light, history is a verb, not a noun - an approach rather than a subject. This approach is sometimes termed the "historical method," which - as I understand it - generally involves trying to identify all relevant information about an historical development, critically examining sources for validity and bias, then selecting and organizing this information into a well-constructed narrative that sheds some light on human experience.
Knowledge of the past is incomplete
To better understand the nature of history we shall have to take a closer look at the historical method and particularly at its shortcomings. The method begins with an attempt to identify all relevant information about an historical episode. Because the historian cannot study the past directly, he must rely on available evidence. And here we must make a distinction between actual history and known history. Actual history is everything that actually occurred at the time and place of the historical event under study, while known history is merely the scanty evidence left behind.
The known past is infinitely smaller than the actual past.
People die taking their memories with them. Few human artifacts survive the centuries. We have little or no evidence from many historical periods. Therefore, the known past is infinitely smaller than the actual past. Consider the difficulty of accurately understanding any important contemporary issue, and think how much more difficult it is to piece together a valid picture of a situation from the past. The difficulty becomes magnified as we move farther back in time. Thus, the historian can illuminate only fragments of the past, not the past itself.
Our view of the past keeps changing
History is not static; our views of history are constantly changing as new discoveries are made that cast doubt on previous knowledge. Before 1900 the Trojan War was considered entirely a myth; Machu Picchu and China's terra cotta army were unknown. New interpretations of historical events frequently come along to challenge older views. Was Winston Churchill the grand statesman of his age or, as has more recently been suggested, a less admirable figure? Such newer, alternative explanations are termed revisionist history. Even a popular film can do much to change public awareness and attitudes about the historical past.
History is subjective
Evidence about the past can include remains such as bones, architectural ruins, pottery shards and art works or written accounts including government records, diaries, histories and insights gleaned from the various academic disciplines, which themselves rely heavily on historical evidence. Artifacts are mute and require human interpretation. Written accounts reflect the point-of-view and the biases of the author. In both cases, the evidence reflects perceptions of the past, not the reality of the past.
The historian, following the historical method, tries to determine if the evidence is real, accurate or biased. After making these judgments, the historian selects some evidence to include in his narrative, and rejects other sources. The finished product reflects the judgments, point-of-view, biases and errors of the historian himself. This is a highly subjective process throughout. "In fact, one might even say that any history we read is as much a product of the historian who wrote it as of the people who actually lived the events it attempts to describe!"*
Absolute truth is a rare commodity.
History is a search for truth
While some philosophers might argue that history is too subjective to be of much value, it should be remembered that history did happen, and without it we would be largely ignorant of the workings of the world and of the human animal. Absolute truth is a rare commodity; it is no less available from history than from other academic fields. Even "truths" revealed by that most empirical of disciplines, science, often turn out to be wrong when viewed from the perspective of newer discoveries.
Conscientious historians are aware of the pitfalls in their search for historical truth, and they try to avoid them. Students who are aware of the inherent limitations of history will be better prepared to evaluate the validity of historical evidence and historical accounts and consequently more adept at evaluating the conflicting evidence and opinions surrounding the important issues of their own time.
* Furay, Conal and Salevouris, Michael J., The Methods and Skills of History: A Practical Guide, 2nd edition, Harlan Davidson, 2000