What is History?

When I was in college at CSU Long Beach, every history class that I took started with question “what is history?”  As a class, we would hash out our ideas of “history” in an effort to agree upon one collaborative definition.  The purpose of the exercise seemed to be to open our minds not only to what history IS, but to what it ISN’T.  People often see history as an endless stream of names, dates and events that we have to memorize. While the “who”, “what” and “when” may be a PART of history they are not the whole story.


Image Sources: Nan MelvilleMaximum RocknrollSpray Daily

Today in class we looked at three very different images and asked ourselves,  “what do they have in common?”  I was excited to hear your creative and thoughtful responses!  In addition to all of your insightful observations, as we discussed in class: they are all HISTORY.  As an historian you could study obscure topics such as the history of freight train graffiti like these guys, or the history of Christian punk rock like CSULB professor Eileen Luhr. You could even study the history of a dance like I did in my undergraduate studies at Sacramento State.

As we study history, the intrigue lies not only in what happened but in asking the evidence, why?  When we ask why we open up the opportunity to understand the people of the past more completely.  There is no need to the questions we can ask.  Why did the ancient Egyptians spend countless hours and resources building pyramids for their pharaohs?  Why did the ancient Hindus and Buddhists in India believe that life is a cycle of death and rebirth that can only be escaped through enlightenment?   When we ask the evidence, “why?” we enter into a conversation with the past.  We become participants and the story CHANGES depending on which questions we ask.  History is simply not what happened, it is our interpretations of what happened.  Those interpretations change as new evidence is discovered or cultural values evolve.

In this class we will learn all about the ways in which historians study and interpret the past.  You will finish this year with a tool box of skills that you will use as you study history  in years to come.  As a class we will document this journey on our blogs.

For your first blog entry I’d like to hear from you.

What is history?  What does studying the past mean to you?

You may consider questions like: Why do we study history?  What role can one person play in history?  Does history repeat itself?  If so, why?  Who decides what is important in history? How is the history we study here in California different from the history students your age study in Armenia or Korea or Bolivia?  What can we learn about ourselves by studying history?

I’m excited to see your ideas!  Please post your blog links in the comments.


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