The historical method

     The ancient Greek writer Thucydides is considered the father of "scientific" history.  He wrote only about events that occurred during his lifetime that he could verify through examination of written records and eyewitness accounts. He strived for complete objectivity, and in this way he pioneered thie historical method used by historians today.

     Historians try to identify all relevant information about a historical subject, critically examining primary and secondary sources for validity and bias. Then they attempt to select and organize this information into a well-constructed narrative that sheds light on the human experience.

Knowledge of the past is incomplete

     To construct their narratives of the past, historians rely on the 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 only the incomplete and often-scanty evidence left behind.

     People die taking their memories with them. Few human artifacts survive the passing of 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 in truly 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 modify previous understandings. 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 perceptions about the past.

History is subjective

     Evidence about the past can include remains such as bones, architectural ruins, pottery shards, art works, or written accounts including government records, diaries, or newspaper accounts. Artifacts are mute and require human interpretation. Written accounts reflect the point-of-view and 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 the 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!"*

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, in fact, 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 the "truths" revealed by that most empirical of disciplines, science, often turn out to be wrong when viewed from the perspective of additional evidence and newer discoveries.

     Conscientious historians are aware of the pitfalls in their search for the 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 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

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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 when we try to teach it.

What is history?

In simplest terms, history is the story of 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 geography, religion, anthropology, philosophy, economics, technology, art and culture.  History is the overarching subject interested in them all.

Lusitania by Elizabeth

The nature of history