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What is History?

“Everything in the past is worth study.” (J.M. Roberts)

 Simply put, history is the study of the past. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online defines history in several ways; however, we will focus on the following excerpts:

 “Events of the past.”

 “A chronological record of significant events (as affecting a nation or institution) often including an explanation of their causes.”

 “A branch of knowledge that records and explains past events.”

 Below is a more thorough definition of history found at the Sienna College website:

“History is the analysis and interpretation of the human past that enables us to study continuity and change over time. It is an act of both investigation and imagination that seeks to explain how people have changed over time.  Historians use all forms of evidence to examine, interpret, revisit and reinterpret the past.  These include not just written documents, but also oral communication and objects such as buildings, artifacts, photographs and paintings.” According to Anthony K. Jensen at the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy website, “history is the study of the past in all (italics mine) it’s forms”.

 “There is properly no history; only biography.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 Often we think of history as just dates, facts and events.  According to G.K. Chesterton, history is more than just ” . . . a confused heap of facts.”  History is also a study of individual people–how they lived their daily lives, their values, what they aspired to and how they related to others and the world within which they lived. “The way in which people identify and interact with one another is by and large a consequence of history, which shapes and conditions individuals and societies whether they fully understand it or not (Siena, “What is History” 1). As Emerson said, “There is properly no history; only biography.” Through the study of history we are able to extract identity for both ourselves individually and society collectively. We learn how people have been shaped by the events and trappings of their age. We learn how people of a given society or culture are not only changed by certain events (e.g. social revolution, political upheaval, war) but how they were changed from their previous state or mindset through these events both before and after.  We are able to investigate how society has developed into the form that exists today.

 In his famous quote concerning history, George Santayana said: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” To put it another way “history does not repeat itself except in the minds of those who do not know history” (Kahlil Gibran). Therein lies one central value in studying history. We can, if we so desire, make at least an educated attempt to avoid societal or individual error in our own age committed by those in past ages.

 “Man prefers to believe what he prefers to be true.” (Francis Bacon)

 It is important to note that it can be to great advantage when studying history to make use of a variety of informational sources. This is especially important when studying one specific historical person, event or age. One can occasionally find historical information provided by an author who may have an “agenda.” (A desire to further a cause other than that of unbiased historical information; often a political or religious agenda.) Often this occurs without any real intention by the author. Therefore, reading a variety of sources aid in avoiding error and/or bias that may be found when studying only one source.

 Question for Thought:

 Do people shape the events of the particular time in which they live or do the events shape the people? Or both?


 Merriam Webster Dictionary Online   Merriam Webster, n.d. Accessed Web, 05 May 2013.

 What is History & Why Study It?   Siena College, n.d. Accessed Web, 05 May 2013.

Jensen,Anthony K.  Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy. n.d. Accessed Web, 05 May 2013.

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