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History - What Is It?
History has a common definition -- what happened before, a collection of unalterable facts. But to the historian, history has a more narrow definition. To the historian, history is a term of art, defined as a study of written history. While historians make use of archeological or physical evidence, the study of history focuses on historical writings.

History under the common definition can tell us what happened, but not why or how that is important to us today. History in the hands of the historian becomes a form of literature. That means history has an objective and a subjective element. In the hands of the historian, the study and recording of history is an attempt to give meaning to our past, present, and future. A good historian is one who gets the facts right and gives us guiding principles and universal concepts from the facts. The historian, in the details and through the universal concepts, gives us a sense of the people, places, and time. In this way, a good historian draws us into a personal relationship with the past, allowing us to grow and learn from it.

History - Is It Important?
History is important. In centuries past, this statement would have seemed self-evident. From the ancient Royal Library of Alexandria to the more modern Library of Congress, societies have devoted much time and effort to the preservation of man’s written history. It was understood that the past held valuable lessons of how to succeed and how to avoid costly mistakes. History gave us insight into who we are, who we can be, and a sense of our identity.

But in the 18th and 19th century, change was in the wind and history seemed not to be important. First, American rugged individualism, which sought independence from England and pushed westward across the continent, stressed human independence and self-reliance. It rebelled against any constraint of the individual including history. Secondly, the Bible which had been a source of interpreting history for over 1,000 years in Europe was being rejected by skeptics during the age of enlightenment. By the time the 20 century rolls around, America is redefining itself with every new generation. Finally, technological changes and new scientific discoveries begin to occur at an alarming rate. We find ourselves living in a time of constant change.

We define ourselves in terms of where we are going, not where we come from. Many in society say that history holds little importance for us because we believe we live in a time so different from our ancestors. Their experiences could not shed light on our circumstances. They say that man’s intelligence has evolved and that anything from the past is outdated and irrelevant to us. Therefore the past is worthless in the minds of many people. Our ignorance of the past is not the result of a lack of information, but of our choice.

History does matter. George Orwell wrote, “He who controls the past, controls the future.” Our view of the past affects how we respond to our present circumstances. If our view of history is wrong, we are likely to make wrong choices today. These wrong choices will lead to further conflicts and a waste of resources that can eventually lead to the fall of an entire civilization.

History - What To Look For
History is generally written by following a few common approaches. Here are some common approaches used by historians as they try to understand the meaning of what has happened before.

  • The Great Man Theory - This theory is often associated with the nineteenth-century Scottish historian Thomas Carlyle. He declared, “The history of the world is but the biography of great men.” Carlyle argued that great men shape history through their vision.
  • Other Factors - Today many historians look at other factors such as economic, societal, environmental, and technological which they claim is just as significant to historical change as any one person’s vision.
  • The People’s History Approach – This approach focuses on the story of mass movements or on those who were generally outside the accepted norm -- the poor, the oppressed, and the otherwise forgotten people. The people’s history theory is used by many revisionist historians who serve to challenge our preconceived ideas.
When you read history, look for the objective facts and the subjective conclusion the writer draws from these facts. Look for which approach the writer is employing in their history. Look for what universal truths the writer is presenting. Historians do not always write what we want to hear so resist judging the content based upon personal ideology. Finally, does the writer draw you into the time and place of his/her study? If the historian has done the job, what he/she has written will become a part of who you are.

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