||History is the record of the human past. It
includes both concrete elements:
And the more elusive ones:
Historians study this human past
in order to discover what people thought and did. To do this, they look at the records
humans have left of their past, the most important of which are written.
||History can be used for various purposes:
understand human nature.
us insight into contemporary affairs.
us how to behave and think in culturally and socially appropriate ways.|
||Historians approach the study of history
from two main perspectives:
Those with a humanities
orientation see history as being made up of unique people, actions, and events,
which are to be studied both for their intrinsic value and for the insights they provide
about humans in a particular set of historical circumstances.
Those with a social science orientation look for patterns in human
thought and behavior over time. They focus on comparisons rather than on unique events and
are more willing to draw conclusions related to present problems.
We will use both perspectives in this course.
||In writing history, historians
traditionally use two main styles:
Those who prefer the narrative
style emphasize a chronological sequence of events. Their histories are
more like stories, describing the events from the beginning to the end.
Historians who prefer the analytic style emphasize explanation. Their
histories deal more with topics, focusing on causes and relationships. Most historians use
both styles but show a definite preference for one or the other. The authors of The
Western Experience stress the analytic style.
||Some historians have a particular
interpretation or philosophy of history (i.e., a way of understanding its meaning and of
interpreting its most important aspects).
historians argue that economic forces are most important, influencing politics, culture,
and society in profound ways.
who adhere to the Great Man Theory of history maintain that exceptional
men or women (e.g., Ceasar Augustus, Martin Luther, Susan B. Anthony) shaped the events of
with a Christian perspective believe that human societies succeed
or fail depending upon whether or not they follow God's plan as revealed in the Bible.
Most historians are not committed
to a particular philosophy of history, but they do interpret major historical developments
in certain ways. For example, there are various groups of historians who emphasize a
social interpretation of the French Revolution of 1789, while there are others who argue
that the Revolution is best understood in political and economic terms.
We will use a variety of interpretations in this course and focus on the skills
necessary to identify a particular viewpoint or perspective.
||There are four steps in the
historiographical (history writing) process:
- DISCOVERY: The first step involves discovering sources. Most sources
are written documents, which include everything from gravestone inscriptions and diaries
to books and governmental records. Other sources include buildings, art, maps, poetry, and
oral traditions. In searching for sources, historians do not work at random. They usually
have something in mind before they start, and in the process, they must decide which
sources to empahsize over others.
- ANALYSIS: The second step involves analyzing the sources. To test the
genuineness of the source, historians must engage in external criticism.
This constitutes an attempt to uncover forgeries and errors. A source, though genuine, may
not be objective. To deal with this, historians subject sources to internal
criticism by such methods as evaluating the motives of the person who wrote the
- INTERPRETATION: The third step involves interpreting the sources. The
historian gathers the relevant sources together, applies them to the question being
investigated, discovers a pattern, and interprets the sources in terms of that pattern.
(See an example of an interpretation involving the
motives for the Truth in Advertising movement in the United States during the Progressive
- COMMUNICATION: The fourth step involves communicating the
interpretation. The traditional medium for presenting historical evidence is the narrative
essay. However, for their semester projects, students in this class will be
given the flexibility to work in the medium of their choice (e.g., an essay, a work of
art, a dramatic presentation, a multimedia computer presentation, an interpretive dance, a
debate, a slide presentation, a short story, an architectural model, and so on).
||Historians use certain categories to
organize different types of information. The principal categories are:
This refers to questions of how humans are governed, inlcuding such matters as the
exercise of power in peace and war, the use of law, the formation of governments, the
collection of taxes, and the establishment of public services.
This refers to the production and distribution of goods and services. On the production
side, historians usually focus on agriculture, commerce, manufacturing, and finance. On
the disribution side, they deal with who gets how much of what is produced. Their
problem is supply and demand and how people earn their living.
This is the broadest category. It refers to relations between individuals or groups within
some sort of community. This includes the institutions people create (the family, the
army), the classes or castes to which people belong (the working class, the artistocracy),
the customs people follow (marriage, eating), the activities people engage in together
(sports, drinking), and the attitudes people share (toward foreigners, commerce).
This refers to the ideas, theories, and beliefs expressed by people in some
organized way about topics thought to be important. This includes such matters as
political theories, scientific ideas, and philosophies of life.
This refers to theories, beliefs, and practices related to the supernatrual or
unknown. This includes such matters as the growth of religious institutions, the formation
of beliefs about the relation between human beings and God, and the practice of rituals
This refers to the ideas, values, and expressions of human beings as evidenced in
aesthetic works, such as music, art, and literature.
In addition to organizing
different types of information into categories, historians often speciaize in one or two
of these. For example, some historians focus on political history, whereas others are
concerned with socio-economic history. The best historians bring to bear on the problems
that interest them data from all these categories.
||Historians classify written documents into
are those written by a person living during the period being studied and participating in
the matter under investigation. A primary document is looked at as a piece of evidence
that shows what people thought, how they acted, and what they accomplished.
Secondary sources are usually written by someone after the period of
time that is being studied. They are either mainly descriptions or interpretations of the
topic being studied. The more descriptive they are, the more they simply trace what
happened. The more interpretive they are, the more they analyze the causes or the
significance of what happened.
||Historians cannot deal with all of history
at once. One way to solve this is to break history up into separate periods. Typically,
Western Civilization is divided ino the Ancient World, the Middle Ages, the Renaissance,
the Reformation, the Early Modern World, the nineteenth century (1789-1914), and the
twentieth century (1914-present).
|This section adapted from A
Study Guide and Map Supplement for The Western Experience,
by Mortimer Chambers, et al (McGraw Hill College, 1999), prepared by W.M. Bever.