What is the difference between history and the past?
This is the question I love to pose to my students on the first day of any history course. They usually stare back at me puzzled for a few minutes. But, once they start to think about, they come to some great conclusions. Despite only a few being history majors, this semester’s class had fantastic answers and were really engaged with the question of why history matters. So, I thought it might be fun to share some of the ideas from our discussion.
History is not simply everything that happened in the past.
History is indeed true stories from the past retold by historians. Yet, history cannot tell every story or perspective from the past. Historians select moments of the past to tell, or retell. Thus history, in any form, will never be the whole truth. Furthermore, the stories we do choose to tell, are interpretations of past events, peoples, and places (based on what evidence survives), which, more often than not, actually reflect the ideas, values, and cultures of the historian interpreting the evidence.
By this point you might be wondering, what is the point of history then, if it cannot tell us what actually happened? Here is the thing, it can and it can’t. You see, uncovering the truth of the past is not the historian’s goal. Historians are not only concerned with what actually happened, but how that event was understood from multiple perspectives, and what all of these truths might mean (then and now). And in some cases, the myth or what is untrue can be more meaningful than the truth. For example, Jack the Ripper has never been proven to be one man. But the myth of the Ripper left an indelible mark on the culture of Victorian London.
I don’t want to give the impression that history isn’t concerned with the truth or what actually happened. It absolutely is. But in many cases “truth” and what “actually happened” are not so easily discerned. The past itself has no narrative. Historians uncover truths from the past and create narratives that have (and have always had) a purpose. History is has never been the simple memorization of dates and names. It uses actual events of the past to analyze and offer arguments that help understand the human experience.
My goal is that from history my students and I can gain perspective on ourselves and the world around us, in the hope that if we can better understand humanity, we might actually better humanity. Now more than ever, I think the humanities, which continue to be underfunded and underappreciated, matter. I often wonder how people expect to improve the present if they don’t understand how and why we got here.
Obviously, this was a lot of rambling on the meaning and significance of history. I know I can get carried away. I just want everyone to love and appreciate history like I do! And obviously if you are reading here, you probably already do.
Now it is your turn, why do you think history matters?
Love history too? Here some more posts you might like:
A bit more on my dissertation research here and here.
Why I think more people should study history
5 books that changed the way I thought about the past and present