April 1, 2004

“Every day you may make progress. Every step may be fruitful. Yet there will stretch out before you an ever-lengthening, ever-ascending, ever-improving path. You know you will never get to the end of the journey. But this, so far from discouraging, only adds to the joy and glory of the climb,” Sir Winston Churchill. I heard this quote recently and it has stuck with me, and I believe that it is fitting to the topic of history.

Through our journeys this semester we have learned about two elements of history. Methodology involves a study of the tools used to write history. These might be materials (ex. Manuscripts, diaries, journals, newspapers, film, books, etc) or nonmaterial (ex. concepts and theories based on economic doctrine, political ideology, religious predestination, etc.) Historiography involves an exploration and understanding of the body of writings in the field of history on any given topic, such as formation and functioning of the Democratic Party, the Civil War diplomacy, etc.

History helps us better understand the present. The cliché is true that to understand the present one must understand the past. History cannot provide clear answers to today’s problems, but knowledge of relevant historical background is essential for a balanced and in-depth understanding of many current world situations.

History can help one develop tolerance and open-mindedness. Most of us have a tendency to regard our own cultural styles and values as right and proper. Studying the past is like going to a foreign country, they do things differently there. Returning from such a visit to the past, we have, perhaps, rid ourselves of some of our inherent cultural provincialism.

The realization that history involves the study of individual interpretations or versions of the past can be unsettling. Many of us yearn for the security afforded by unchallenged, definitive answers to a limited and manageable set of questions. To find out that historians are always asking new questions, and continually offering new answers to old questions, eliminates the possibility of discovering the absolute and singular truth about the past. At the same time, this is also what makes history so intellectually exciting. History is not the lifeless study of a dead past; it is not about memorizing dates, names, and places. History is a living and evolving dialogue about the most important subject of all, the human experience.

It is clear that thinking historically is not as easy as it first appears. There are four roads to a more sophisticated appreciation of history and mastery of historical thinking, so you can develop historical consciousness.

Stage 1: History as a fact.

History is nothing more then a bunch of facts; dates, names, events, and thing that need to be memorized. Where books and lectures are full of facts, but nothing ties together.

Stage 2: History as causal sequence.

History is more than facts. It provides a story of sequential developments over time. For example, event A leads to event B which leads to event C and so on. The stories are often interesting and satisfying to know why things happened as they did. More important, I am now beginning to see where I fit into the picture

Stage 3: History as complexity.

Stage 3 is where the person starts to get confused. History is a subject, in which there is so much to learn, and you no longer know where to begin. There are too many variations in the accounts you read, even accounts of the same time and place. Some books emphasize politics and war, others emphasize social life, or economics, or ideas, or art. History is not like math or chemistry, where you can get exact and certain answers.

Stage 4: History as interpretation.

Where the person realizes that history is as much a product of the historian who writes it, as of the actual people who lived it. At the time I didn’t understand the comment at all; now I do. The person now realizes that studying the various interpretations of an event, and how historians support and develop their interpretations, is much more interesting than just trying to memorize facts.

Viewing history through the lens of multiple causality is a basic ingredient of historical mindedness. The essence of history is explaining how and why some given event