Why study history?  A look at some of the special techniques of historical study
Why study history? A look at some of the special techniques of historical study
Sep 24, 2021

Questioning the value of historical study is really questioning the value of the human race.  To remain in ignorance of the past is to mankind as intolerable as remaining in ignorance of one’s parentage is to the individual.  The past gave birth to and moulded the present, and there can be little doubt about its influence on all aspects of life.  Historical study is, therefore, essential to our understanding of life and of ourselves.  It is our means of identity and our measure of progress through life.  It is also a valuable educational discipline whose principles can be applied to any subject requiring accurate judgement in the face of conflicting evidence or values.

Two thousand years ago, a Greek historian claimed history to be “philosophy from examples”.1  Historians preserve the past, making the lessons of experience available to mankind.  History predicts the future, guiding us in parallel situations and thus helping us to avoid some of the mistakes of the past.

The study of history affords pleasure to many as a hobby or pastime in itself, as witnessed by the immense popularity of museums or places of ‘historic interest’ (which might offer as little as a few crumbling stones as physical artefacts; the site and the history or myths surrounding these relics being the real attraction).  Then there is the historical relationship to other leisure pursuits, and, in fact, there are few hobbies which do not permit some historical link, which helps to expand and enhance the hobby, making it more complete and satisfying.

To fully appreciate the arts, historical study is not merely an added bonus, but a necessity.  No art form is independent of its creator and historical background.  It is rarely sufficient to admit that a painting or sculpture, a piece of literature or music is appealing to the senses.  The true enthusiast will be interested in all the circumstances from which the work arose, if he is to truly appreciate and understand the meaning of the masterpiece before him, and this is so in our everyday existence and relationships.

When I lived in Greece, I realised that to achieve harmony, to know and understand the Greeks, it was necessary for me to study their history, as the complexities of their past are directly responsible for many of the prevailing attitudes, values and ideas today.  You cannot know a race unless you know something of its past, and this is not a peculiarity of only one race.  Nowadays, no country can successfully exist and progress without some interaction with its neighbours and the quality of that interaction will be greatly enhanced by the degree of understanding that can be achieved through historical study.

While other sciences deal with facts, history is about the effects of human behaviour and therefore cannot have the same rigid system of rules and principles as the other disciplines.  The techniques of the historian will therefore differ with the individual and the line of investigation he is pursuing.

There is an enormous range and variety of materials yielding useful information about the past and these, coupled with critical judgement, are the tools of the historian.  His or her chief research will be in primary sources, which include almost any form of communication or evidence that originated in the period under study, from official records and reports to personal letters and diaries, from archaeological and museum artefacts to factories and whole towns. 

Evaluating the pertinence of a source involves more than verifying its authenticity and date.  Its creator or author should also be identified and researched so that his qualification to present his facts can be judged.  Social factors and generally prevailing friends and attitudes are all relevant considerations.

For example, let us suppose an historian has to hand a political treatise containing information relevant to his researches.  His prime consideration will be to establish that the date it was written coincides as closely as possible with the date of the events with which he is concerned.  The document itself must be identified as being what it claims to be.  Having verified these, his next consideration will be to identify its author, which then poses questions about that author’s veracity and knowledge of his subject.  These questions in turn give rise to others relating to the author’s social background, his interests and prejudices, and in this particular example, his political bias.  His reasons for writing the document, his projected audience or readership, and his intended effect on that readership are all considerations which cannot be ignored.  The focus of attention then turns from the author to his contemporaries.  The prevailing attitudes of the period will bear interesting comparison with subsequent and current attitudes.  All this background information builds up an interesting and useful scenario to the original document.  The renowned historian Lord Asa Briggs2 believed that the achievement of a sense of immediacy and perspective was the best hope of the historian, so unless all these questions on the primary source have been satisfied, not only will such an achievement be impossible, but the historian will be poorly equipped to draw objective conclusions from its contents.

The document itself will yield two categories of information: the facts the author intended to convey, or the ‘witting testimony’, and any incidental information the author reveals in his concomitant reference to associated facts, ideas or attitudes, or the ‘unwitting testimony’, that is: the values or attitudes of the author or the culture to which he/she belongs which are revealed unintentionally. 

This is only an example of the thorough way the historian must investigate his source before he can begin to interpret the acquired information.

Important information will also be gleaned from a study of secondary sources, chiefly the works of other historians on related subjects; works that have been compiled after the events they describe have occurred.  Indeed, these secondary sources might well be the starting point of the historian’s work, as he will wish, in his thoroughness, to know what other historians have written about his subject.

His work in the secondary sources will be acknowledged accordingly and respectfully, the words of others framed in quotation marks or italicized, and explained in detail in footnotes or appended bibliographies, so that future readers will be able to identify immediately the worker and work referred to, even to the relevant page number.  Particular tribute may be paid in greater detail in a separate list of acknowledgements.

Finally, it is left to the historian to present his findings and interpretations in his individual way, which might be in the form of a narrative with a careful chronological order of events, or as a synthesis which strikes a balance between analysis of primary evidence and description, and explanation of events and effects.  Again, a matter of individual technique will be the chosen style of language with adherence to or avoidance of the acceptable but sometimes ambiguous terminology or jargon of the discipline.  The historian will perhaps suit his language to his intended readership.  His aim will be to produce a work that will subsequently become a respected secondary source or reliable work or reference, to benefit future historians, researchers or students of history.

As with many other degrees, History can be combined quite easily with a large number of other subjects, some of which might sound quite unlikely for a joint honours degree.  For example you could study History with Music, Mathematics or Chinese.  The skills required are transferable and esteemed by quite a range of employers.  As to the range of career opportunities open to graduates, the list is enormous, ranging from teaching, museums or the arts, marketing, tourism, IT and even the military.  For further suggestions on this topic, why not look at the Complete University Guide for 2020.  Finally, always remember that the highly qualified experts at 24HourAnswers are here to provide any help you need with your history studies at any hour of the day. Next time you need help, try out our online tutoring services or get extra practice with our homework library.  Alternatively, if you would like further online reading in the subject, do visit the American Historical Association.

  1. Dionysius of Halicarnassus 30-7BC (Arts Rhetorica x12)
  2. https://www.historytoday.com/archive/asa-briggs

Popular Posts