What Is History? (A Reading for Students)

3 Jan 2013

Around the time our son was born, our city switched over from conventional garbage trucks to the EZ-Cart system. Under the conventional approach, two sanitation workers would work the truck. One would drive, and one would get out of the truck, lift our cans, and empty the contents into the back of the truck. Under the newer EZ-Cart system, a single sanitation worker stays in her truck’s cab and uses a remote control—sort of a joystick—to direct two large arms out from the side of the truck. She makes the arms lift up our specialized EZ-Cart garbage can, over the side of the truck, and the arms grasp the can while the contents are shaken out into the truck. Then the worker makes the arms put our can back down along the sidewalk.
One day, when our son was about three, the two of us were out in the front garden and the EZ-Cart garbage truck came by to take our garbage. As usual, our son was utterly taken with this scene. This day, he turned to me and, using his arms to make a gesture imitative of the cart-lifting arms of the truck, he asked me, “Mama, why does the truck empty the garbage like this?”
Without thinking, I launched into a long historical explanation. I explained to him that, a long time ago, people in cities would have just thrown their garbage into their backyards or the street, and this tended to lead to horrible messes, terrible smells, lots of vermin, and, most people believed, disease. (Some thought the disease was produced and carried by the “bad air,” which was where the term “mal-aria,” i.e.,“bad air,” came from.) The public health movement as well as increased standards of civic pride moved people to use public monies raised through taxes to provide for public garbage collection.
It used to be, I told my son, when we first moved into our house, that we all put out a can and the worker came and picked up the can and emptied it into the truck. But now they used a system that was much better, the EZ-Cart system. I told him I presumed this happened in part because of concern for worker safety (the worker never gets near the trucks’ dangerous grinders when using the joystick system), but also probably because of lawsuits over worker safety. So labor unions had had something to do with this, I guessed, as did more generally a sense that people should not have to risk injury and death unnecessarily just to earn a living.
I pointed out the EZ-Cart system probably also was used by our city because it meant one person could easily pick up the garbage, whereas before they usually had two people doing the route, one driving the truck and one emptying the garbage. (Mentally, I noticed for the first time that the two truck workers had been men, and interestingly, the EZ-Cart worker was a woman. Gender-note to self.) Rising healthcare costs and the like meant that it was cheaper, in the long run, to maintain a much more expensive truck than to maintain another worker. Workers nowadays are expensive because we treat them as real human beings, I told my son, even if they’re picking up garbage.
At that point, I felt I had managed to cover all the relevant portions of history I could instinctively think of. Any questions, I asked? He just looked at me and tried again.
“No, Mama, why does this truck empty the garbage with arms on the side, but the big dumpster truck empties it using arms on the front?”
“Oh,” I said, feeling kind of stupid. “Well, because the dumpster trucks have to lift a much heavier container, so they do it from the front so the balance works better, I guess.”
Now he was satisfied. He had wanted physics.
What is history, and why do some of us see it where others see physics?
Historians (like me) who teach history classes to non-majors (like my students) find themselves confused as to how to explain what history is, how you do it, and how you know it. It seems to us so obvious that it is as if you asked us to explain what it is like to live in a three-dimensional world. What would it be like otherwise? We think like historians all the time—even when we’re asked by little kids about garbage trucks.
Years ago, when I was teaching history of medicine to science major pre-meds, I asked my mate (a doctor) how on earth to explain what history is. He asked me to tell him, in the simplest terms, what history is.
“That’s easy,” I answered. “It’s the study of change over time. But they don’t get what I mean when I say that.”
He decided that my pre-meds would get it if it were phrased as a formula, so he came up with this:

Nice; history takes the integral of change over time. What historians study is the arc of change over time. For example, we might study presidential history, and specifically study the history of FDR’s presidency, or we might study how the power of the president has changed over the last two hundred years.
Sometimes we study stability over time. For instance, we might study some social institution (for example: a hospital; a particular concept of democracy; a law) that lasted, say, a hundred years. But even then, we’re typically curious about how that institution morphed, where it came from, and where it went, so we’re usually actually interested in change.
History is only boring if you’re doing it wrong.
Most K-12 and many undergraduate history classes are absolutely awful because they teach you names, dates, places, and events, and expect you to spit back same. This gives you the impression that historians are interested in factoids. In fact, very few historians—and no professional historians that I know—are interested in factoids. They are interested, instead, in non-fiction stories. They’re interested in characters, in character development, in plots, and in themes. Really, they are fundamentally interested in humans.
So, just as an anthropologist might study one particular culture or population, an historian might study one particular historical topic. But, like anthropologists, most of us historians are interested not just in the particulars, but in human nature itself, even if we don’t make that obvious in our scholarly productions. Humans fascinate us. We want to know our historical subjects in the way most people want to know a lover, even when we hate our subjects. (It’s hard, sometimes, not to hate our subjects, especially when we study someone like Hitler.)
Why an historian is motivated to study a particular topic depends on the historian and the moment. Sometimes we are motivated by professional rewards like direct payment, grant opportunities, promotion and tenure, or publication opportunities. Sometimes we are motivated by politics, as some Marxist and feminist historians have been. Often we are motivated by intense curiosity about a particular topic. (It’s not uncommon for our motivations to change or pile up over the course of a project.)
How we make history:
What we produce at the end of an historical study depends on the project. We might produce a scholarly article or book, or a trade press book (which typically reads more like a novel than the typical scholarly article), or something more unusual, like a documentary film or a private historical report. It all depends on our interests, our talents, and what we’re trying to achieve with the history we’re producing.
By now you may have noticed that, confusingly, the word “history” is used in at least three different ways:

  1. “History,” meaning something that happened in the past. Sample usage: My mustache became history in 1984. My motorcycle is also history.
  2. “History,” meaning one particular account that an historian has produced to relay past events. Sample usage: Churchill’s history of the fall of the Roman Empire is considered definitive.
  3. “History,” meaning the practice of researching something in the past. Sample usage: I’m doing a history of birthing practices in eighteenth-century Scotland.

These sort of overlap—an historian doing history (using historical methodology) is studying history (the past) with the aim of producing a history (a story). That overlap reveals something kind of important:
Although history makes us, we make history.
That is to say, we never really access the past directly; we don’t have time machines, so we can’t access it directly. Instead, what we do is to reconstruct the past based on what we have access to. In that sense, we make history. Most of what we think we know about the past we know because someone has constructed a story about the past.
Almost inevitably, the stories we produce as historians have morals encoded in them. We may not mean to encode morals in stories, but humans seem to be naturally inclined to learn lessons from stories, and perhaps as part of this, historians seem to be naturally inclined to form stories that have morals to them.
Often, a history will have one or more morals encoded in it. For example, old-fashioned histories of medicine that were histories of Great Men typically encoded morals about how seemingly ordinary men could become great doctors if they were smart, hardworking, and willing to literally give their lives to their work. Modern histories of medicine often encode morals about the evils of oppression and about the power of culture to shape individual belief and action.
In short, professional historians construct stories about the past using available sources.
A source that is an artifact from the time and place we’re studying is called a primary source. An example of primary source might be baptismal records from eighteenth-century Scotland, or a eugenics law from the 1930s, or a photograph of a subject whose life we are studying.
Secondary sources are histories that other historians have written about a historical topic in which we’re interested. So if Pernick has written a book-length history of American eugenics, and I’m writing a history of eugenics, Pernick’s book constitutes a secondary source I would use.
Tertiary sources are historiographies, typically theoretical pieces that consider what kind of histories have been done about a particular kind of topic. Historiographies typically aim to help historians think about how to do what they do. What’s to think about? After all, we’re basically just trying to find out who, what, when, where, why, and how, right?
Well, it’s not that easy. We have to consider, after all, where we start, how far we look (since, in the end, everything is connected to everything), and where we end. We have to consider to what extent we can really know (or say) what caused what. (Just because one thing happened after another doesn’t mean one thing caused another. And knowing for sure who pulled a trigger still might not be adequate to really explaining an important assassination.) We have to try to figure out what we might be missing. Could we, for example, be failing to understand how a particular belief about gender influenced the way the founding fathers wrote our founding national documents?
Histories written by professionals often employ primary, secondary, and tertiary sources.
Histories written by professionals also typically contain two elements: the descriptive and the explanatory.
The descriptive is just that: it tells you who did what when and where. The explanatory attempts to explain why particular things happened when and how they did, why particular actors behaved in the way they did. In an effort to be maximally objective, occasionally historians have attempted to assemble relatively “pure” histories that are meant to be specifically descriptive. For example, George Sarton, who is generally considered to have founded the discipline of History of Science, attempted to assemble comprehensive critical bibliographies (lists of publications) in the history of science. It is hard to know what to make of such assemblies of primary sources; such a list-like production is not recognizable to most contemporary historians as finished history, though it evidences dedicated historical methodology. Professional historians and lay people alike typically think of a history as a narrative that tells us something not only about what happened, but why it happened.
Generations ago, historians tended to study great ideas, great events (like wars), and great men and women. These were understood to be the major determinants of the historical arc of a culture. But in the twentieth century, historians became increasingly interested in “little people” and their experiences of life in the past. So they started to study the people who were “nobodies” in history—ordinary midwives, coalminers, army privates. They also became increasingly interested in understanding how amorphous, abstract cultural ideas and ideals—like “invisible hands”—shaped cultural productions. So they might be interested in the relationship of the Protestant work ethic (an ethic of productivity) to modern capitalism and science.
By definition, historians are modern:
Historians thus may be interested in “micro” history—highly individualized stories of particular individuals (e.g., biographies)—or in “macro” history—great, sweeping movements (e.g., the spread of democracy). In spite of a move in some quarters in the last thirty years or so towards “postmodernism,” i.e., a general skepticism of a material reality external to our minds and cultures, most historians I know--and all the ones I respect--are deeply modernistic. That is to say, we believe in a real and reasonably knowable past.
We aren’t naive. We are aware that the historical record is incomplete. We recognize that our work is shaped by our biases. We understand that sometimes what people believe happened--even if it didn’t really happen--can have a bigger effect on their actions than what really happened. We understand that people’s experiences in the past were shaped by their particular psychosocial milieu.
But in the end, we believe either something happened or it didn’t happen. We know the Holocaust happened, for example. It is not merely a collective memory, even though in practice it continues to exist (in a different form) in our collective memory.
In that sense, history is a social science. Professional historians have fairly strict standards of evidence. We may debate what counts as convincing or adequate evidence, but we believe that evidence is necessary to an historical argument, and we remain open to the idea that new evidence could undo or change what we have believed to be true about the past. History is thus a social science in its research methodology.
But history is a humanities discipline in the way that it is oriented to the particulars of human experience. Rarely do historians seek to come up with generalizations the way natural scientists or most other social scientists do. (I know of very few historians who believe in historical “laws,” except fairly obvious ones like the Law of Unintended Consequences.)
And in the end, historians’ productions are something of an art. Many (though not all) historians seek to produce a beautiful, engaging, compelling history. Here’s a contrasting example: in the medical sciences  there is a clear standard in how you present the findings an experiment; you present the methods, subjects, findings, limitations, etc. But there is no absolute standard in how you present the findings of an historical study. There are tropes—most of us start histories with an engaging story—but the presentation is, in the end, an art.
So I would say that history is a social science in its research methodology, a humanities discipline in its orientation, and an art in terms of its productions.
What makes history different, then, from journalism?
One of my dissertation directors, Fred Churchill, told me that, unless one was studying something more than 50 years in the past, one was doing journalism, not history. I suppose Fred meant that, if you’re studying something in the last 50 years, you don’t have the necessary critical distance—the dust has not settled enough yet—to do a good history.
For my part, I think that good journalism is good history. (Disclosure: lately I often work on contemporary issues and I write for the mainstream press.) My only caveat would be that journalists tend to obscure sources more than historians care to tolerate. Journalism also often suffers from lack of adequate pre-publication peer review, so that it does not enjoy the vetting that most professional histories do.
But I think most historians would agree that you don’t need special training in history to be a good historian; what you need is a commitment to finding the truth about the past, and a willingness to develop the skills needed to find out that truth. We are, fundamentally, detectives. (Thus, although it is highly atypical for historians, it is not that strange, really, that I have a private detective I keep on retainer for when I am doing current-day histories. I call Larry my “specialist librarian,” and he is effectively that.)
If you still think that history is boring, rest assured that, before I became an historian rather by accident, I also thought that history is really boring. Nowadays I’m so addicted to it that I can’t not do it--even when talking to 3 year olds about garbage trucks. I’m not saying that you should love history, but I would like you to understand that if you love mysteries and stories, you might actually fall in love with doing history.
I’m fundamentally a writer, and so what I really love about history is the write-up. I know that some people find it really hard to write a good story that is completely constrained by sources--constrained by the truth. But when I’m facing that challenge--the challenge of producing something highly readable and yet completely true to the best of my knowledge--I think I feel the way a dedicated rock climber must feel when she faces an unfamiliar and somewhat daunting cliff face.
But, why?
A final note: If there’s one thing I’ve learned about providing histories, it’s that what historians and their readers really want to know is why. We want to know about individual humans’ motivations. We want to know it so badly that I’m inclined to think humans are hardwired to try to understand each other’s motivations. (I can imagine that understanding motivation would greatly increase one’s chances for survival.)
The great irony is that individual human motivation is almost impossible to know for sure. We can so often figure out who, what, when, where, and how. But why someone did something is something that generally must be inferred--guessed at, even. Even if a subject states his or her motivation in writing, which is rare, that doesn’t mean that really was his or her motivation. The subject might have been lying, grandstanding, actively engaged in self-deception, or just plain lacking in insight.
So the thing we want to know the most, in history, is perhaps the thing we can only ever guess at. Maybe that’s what paradoxically motivates us.
© Alice Domurat Dreger, 2013
About this essay: I have the job of teaching the history of medicine--content and methodology--to students in our Masters program in only 10 weeks. Most have no background in history and my course is the only they will have in history. So I developed this essay to try to give them the basics. Over the years, I’ve refined and expanded it. I’m sharing it here in case it is of use to other folks in my position. You have my permission to cut and paste this into a more easily usable form if you want to print it for students; in that case, just note my authorship and copyright of 2013. You’re also welcome to link this page from your teaching website.