History: what is it?

History can be defined as the ‘branch of knowledge dealing with past events.’ However, this is quite vague…I ate a banana for breakfast this morning: I have knowledge of this past event, so why isn’t it in history books? What is it what makes an event worthy of being ‘put down in history’?

Deaths? Natural disasters happen all around the world on a daily basis, only for it to have a minute on the news before the media forgets it.

New legislation? Again, laws are made or amended almost everyday, yet the nation remains ignorant to these changes unless they, themselves, are affected.

Leadership? The likes of Martin Luther King  and Winston Churchill instantly come to many people’s minds when asked about an influential historical figure – but why are they remembered above anyone else?

When evaluating what is history and what is not, all these factors – and many more – must be considered.

Yet, I must disagree with the standard definition of history: the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. I identify ‘history‘ and ‘the past‘ as two separate identities. The past is the truth; it tells us what happened, and we cannot change that. History, on the other hand, is constantly redefined throughout generations; history is based on interpretations and thus is forever changing. By way of illustration, let’s go back to me eating my banana for breakfast. I cannot change the truth of what happened – sure, I could tell people that I had toast, but that doesn’t change the fact that I actually ate a banana. That is because that was the past, and we cannot change that. Therefore, because I don’t believe that the terms ‘the past’ and ‘history’ interchangeable, just because I ate a banana in the past, it doesn’t necessarily mean that it was history.

I believe that history is change. If an event or a person manages to change how a group of people think and/or behave, then I believe that that is history. For example, WW1 is history not only because of the huge numbers of deaths, but because it united the nation and was the stimulant to social change in Britain. The first Labour Government came into power in 1924 for many reasons: the Great War could be given credit as it did shift Britain a little left on the political spectrum; the Liberal Party was split after 1918 into David Lloyd George (prime minister during ww1) and Asquith supporters; and for the first time, Britain was becoming accepting of liberal ideologies and social reform, hence I believe this to be important enough to be classified as history (sorry, banana).

History is subjective. Historians interpret the evidence left behind and use this to form a picture of the past; but we must remember that a lot of history only creates the ‘picture’ and we cannot simply state that “because it is history, it was the past.” There are many holes in history due to lack of evidence, so we cannot be certain of the exact events. The phrase: “the absence of evidence is not the evidence of absence” plays an important role. This quote can be demonstrated by the common brainteaser: if a tree falls down but nobody’s there to hear it, does it still make a sound? The fact is that yes, of course there is a noise; the past tells us that this tree did fall down, and just because nobody was there to hear it doesn’t mean that there was no sound. But the history of this can be explained by an analogy: a birdwatcher is walking through the woods, looking for a rare bird, when they come across the fallen tree. The birdwatcher uses this evidence (e.g. the position of the tree/any other materials on it) to interpret what happened: did the wind blow it down? Was there an earthquake? This birdwatcher is like a historian: they both use the available evidence to form a conclusion of what they believed to have happened – but because the evidence can be interpreted in an infinite number of ways, depending on our individual perspectives and the amount of evidence to hand, it’s hard to form one valid conclusion that everyone can agree on (where’s a time machine when you need it?).

In summary, history is all about: judgments, evidence and opinions. History is an art created by modern concepts and interpretations. “The past” and “history” are two separate identities: the past is the truth that cannot be changed; history is the interpretation of the past based on evidence, and is constantly changing. History is the change in attitudes which lead to the changes in society, altogether. We learn new things from both the past and history, and we use this to make informed choices in the present: “If you want to understand today, you have to search yesterday.” (Pearl Buck)

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it” – George Santayana. 



One thought on “What is history?

  1. Some interesting ideas here Lauren; discourses on the nature of History are normally left until undergraduate level study so it’s great to see that you are thinking about these already in Year 12! As discussed in class, if this is something that interests you, you could check out something like E H Carr’s ‘What is History’ that explores many of the issues you have mentioned.


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