What is history?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Academic historians know that history is a very complex topic. Contrary to what many believe, history is not actually a simple account of what truly happened in bygone times. Instead, history can be defined as a "complex intersection of truths, bias and hopes" (Professor Mark Damen, Utah State University, "Section 1: History and What-Really-Happened"). There are three different ways that history can reveal the past: through memories, through recovery, and even through invention. Either way we look at it, history will always be subjective, never a true objective look at the past. Historians further note that "no evidence brought to light through archeology or historical investigation is complete without context, and sometimes the significance of recovered data is hard to determine" ("Section 1").

One reason why history is a subjective, biased account is due to the fact that no two witnesses experience or observe something that happened in the exact same way. As Professor Damen points out, even law enforcement officers today are well aware of the problem posed by multiple eyewitnesses reporting multiple versions of the same story. Law enforcement officers act similarly to historians when they "piece together different people's versions of the 'truth'" ("Section 1").

Another reason for the subjective truth of history concerns the fact that people interpret an event in multiple ways due to their own partiality to what happened. Hence, major events, such as wars, will always be looked at differently. No two sides of a war will agree on why a war started or even who won the war. Professor Damen even provides us with the "crucifixion of Jesus" as an example of a historical event subjected to vastly different interpretations ("Section 1").

However, despite the subjectivity of historical truth, the study and portrayal of history is essential for helping us understand human nature, not just in the past but in the present. Professor Damen asserts that when historical truths are debated, the debates are based on present opinions, not past opinions. One example Professor Damen gives concerns the ongoing debate between creationists and scientists about the true "origin of humanity" ("Section 1"). More importantly, these debates need to be encouraged, not crushed, in order to ensure the freedom of thought and humanity that Democracy preserves. Hence, it can ultimately be argued that the study of history helps us understand our present and is essential for preserving Democratic ideals of the Western world.

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