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Why and How Do We Study History?

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By Edited Aug 6, 2016 0 0

All teachers of history have to answer the question:

Why do we study History?

From an educator's perspective, as Carl G. Gustavson says in his book, A Preface to History, "He who knows history adds depth to his observation, knowing, as he does, the origins and life history of what he sees and thereby understanding a great deal about the purpose, how it functions, and why it operates in this particular way" (16).[1] I will add that what we learn from history also helps us understand current events based on history and to speculate on prospects for the future based on what and how we know historical events can influence people and the environment.

The Thinker by Rodin

Gustavson's book is intended to provide the novice historian a basis for the study, or maybe more appropriately, the analysis of history. The study of history gives us perspective by allowing us to view, not just the details of an event, but the implications of that event (2).[1] The study of history is the study of man; what influences our behavior and our motivations; the forces embedded in society and who we are (3).[1] Based on what we derive from history we may be able to learn and avoid the stumbling blocks that paved the roads of our ancestors.

Carl G. Gustavson's book "A Preface to History"

The book, Preface to History, places emphasis on the ability to "visualize duration" (14).[1] In order to better understand or better study history we must be cognitive of, in fact focused, more on the time-span of events in history. This ability to be cognitive of the duration of events ("contours") requires us to make a special effort, to train, practice, and develop our skills (16);[1] then, historical events in history must then be viewed or analyzed from determination of their cause(s); thus, his approach is to begin at a point at or near the closure of a historical movement and work backwards seeking the origins, establishing relationships, and comparisons between the players, social groups, and social forces existing at that time (56-57).[1]

Photograph of President Reagan leading a Cabinet Meeting, 11 September 1986

Gustavson resents seven characteristics of historical mindedness:[1]

  1. Identify the actors and events, attempt to include any obvious underlying issues;
  2. Gravitate to and through the past to seek origins, relationships and comparisons;
  3. Identify the forces, factors and contours of the forces that are dynamic in society;
  4. Identify and determine the continuity of society in all its forms;
  5. Analyze society's processes of or for change;
  6. Determine fact from fiction and be prepared to accept it; and
  7. Recognize that each situation and event is unique and further determine the trends (5-6).

He further presents nine questions for guiding thoughts during the analysis of history; the answers to these questions help identify the immediate cause for events: what is or are the background agitation(s), strengths or weaknesses of players, social groups and forces, new ideas stimulating the loyalty, economic, religious, new technology, and physical environmental influences (62).[1] He presents the "characteristic of history" as the grouping of our facts in terms of growth and development, of continuity and change; whereas change can be made, the basic form stays the same because changes are usually gradual, thus the players involved generally fail to realize the impact of the evolutionary process (65 & 71).[1]

Washington Crossing the Delaware

Social Forces 

Gustavson sees social forces as the basis for the creation of historical patterns versus any singular individual: "human energies . . . originating in individual motivations, coalesce into a collective manifestation of power" (28).[1] He further explains that these social forces nearly always require a "social group" (28).[1] These social groups will be tied together or created based on some common interest, as relating to these social forces (52).[1] Sometimes people will try and find a single person or event as the cause of a major movement in history, often referred to as The Great Man Theory (53-54).[1] The notion is that many major events and movements in history can be attributed to single persons. For example, The Great Man Theory assumes that the singular cause(s) of the events that have taken place in the history are the result of key historic figures such as Abraham Lincoln for the Emancipation Proclamation and Adolph Hitler for World War II. An individual may be a key player in a social group; however, they are not independent of the social forces that influence their group or their opponents (groups); thus, he is not an advocate of the Great Man Theory, instead he advocates that it is the circumstances of the time (social environmental situation) along with the great individuals that will affect the progress of history. There have been great people that have played major roles in history; however, to over play the importance of a single person or event could overshadow other significant causes and effects that have created the history we know.

Problem Solving and Scrutiny

Gustavson's problem solving methodology for the study of history is quite similar to the problem solving process (methods) promoted in various parts of society today (identify the problem, determine the background, factors, and issues bearing on the problem, establish criteria for determining best solution, develop possible solutions, analyze solutions, compare solutions, and select best solution. In the study of history, attention must also be paid to the source or sources of information to determine its accuracy and reliability (170).[1] Most of what we use as resources (outside primary sources) is work that is the product of a few to many researchers and may be slanted towards certain beliefs (166).[1]

  • Scrutinize what's offered as fact since it is to be the basis for conclusion (171).[1]
  • Scrutinize your own research and conclusions as well; don't "cherry pick" your evidence in order to support an outcome based on any preconceived prejudicial subject matter beliefs.

For those that are not familiar with this term, Cherry-Picking is to take and accept only that information that is consistent to an outcome or conclusion that you have already desired to achieve. This is a common error for novice historians and students (and politicians).

George Santayana
  

I would be remiss in not including in closing the famous quote regarding the study of history by George Santayana:

"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.

(From his 1905, Reason in Common Sense)

 

 

 

A Preface to History
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Bibliography

  1. Carl G. Gustavson A Preface to History. New York: McGraw-Hill Companies, 1955.

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