Why Study History?

This is an excellent book by John Fea, Associate Professor of American History and Chair of the History Department at Messiah College. Professor Fea is also a blogging colleague, blogging at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, which is also the title of an earlier book of his, subtitled, Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America. There he posts the normal history blog posts as well as personal reflections on current events, religion, politics, and the academic life, as well as videos. He also hosts a podcast that has already been featured on this blog.

In my opinion, everyone who would like to be a serious student of history needs to read this book. Professor Fea gives us an accessible primer on how to do history, from the obligatory “What Do Historians Do?” to “What Can You Do With a History Degree?”

So what is a historian? ” ‘In my opinion,’ writes Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Gordon Wood, ‘not everyone who writes about the past is a historian. Sociologists, anthropologists, political scientists, and economists frequently work in the past without thinking historically.’ ” [pp. 1-2]

Is history simply the past, or is there a difference? “The past is the past–a record of events that occurred in bygone eras. The past is dates, facts, and things that ‘happened.’ The past is what probably turned many of us off to the subject of history during our school years.” [p. 2] So the past appears to be different from history. If that’s the case, then what is history? “History is a discipline. It is the art of reconstructing the past. As historian John Tosh writes, ‘All the resources of scholarship and all the historian’s powers of imagination must be harnessed to the task of bringing the past to life–or resurrecting it.’ The past is messy, but historians make sense of the mess by collecting evidence, making meaning of it, and marshaling it into some kind of discernible pattern. History is an exciting act of interpretation–taking the facts of the past and weaving them into a compelling narrative. The historian works closely with the stuff that has been left behind–documents, oral testimony, objects–to make the past come alive. As John Arnold has noted, ‘The sources do not ‘speak for themselves’ and never have done [so]. … They come alive when the historian reanimates them. And although the sources are a beginning, the historian is present before or after, using skills and making choices. Why this document and not another? Why these charters and not those? There is a major difference between a work of history and a book of quotations.” [p. 3]

The best historians are also good writers, of course. “Whether it is through a book, article, website, exhibit, lecture or lesson, all historians present their ideas to the public in some fashion and should do so in ways that are accessible.” [p. 5] But even more than being good writers, “The best historians tell stories about the past–stories that have a beginning, a middle, and an end. Most stories end with a lesson or a ‘moral.’ While a historian may not explicitly preach the moral of his or her story, if told in a compelling fashion, the moral will always be evident to the reader.” [p. 5]

More than just telling a story and getting the story right, historians ‘are also charged with the task of analyzing and interpreting the past. In other words, they need to think like historians.” [p. 6] That leads us to a discussion of historical thinking. “Historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke have boiled down the task of historical interpretation into what they call the ‘five C’s of historical thinking.’ … when doing their work, historians must always be sensitive to change over timecontextcausalitycontingency, and complexity.” [p. 6] We find out here that historians are interested in how things and people change over time. When a historian sees a situation, the historian wonders how we got to that point. How did we get from point A to point B? And how does that movement differ from other movements in history? Context is also important because we get meaning from the context. If we’re analyzing text from a document, we have to analyze that text within the context of the entire document. We also have to understand a past event in light of the situation in which it happened. “Part of the historian’s vocation is to debunk context-free explorations of the past by looking closely at the evidence, exploring the larger social and cultural context in which words are used, and exposing these fallacies to the general public. … the past can sometimes be akin to a foreign country where people do things differently. Historians must always keep in mind the culture and belief systems of this foreign country as they interpret their sources and draw conclusions about their meaning.” [p. 9] They also understand how events are related to other events–cause and effect. “In this sense, the historian moves beyond the mere recitation of facts and tries to explain why particular events happened in the way they did or how events have been shaped by previous events. … The historian uses the sequence of events in an attempt to determine causality.” [p. 10] Because complex human beings have free will, they can shape their own lives. People make choices. There is also the influence of random chance. Many people also believe in a divine spirit directing events. This boils down to contingency, which is how people’s choices determine their fates. “It is unlikely that any proponent of contingency would deny that human behavior is shaped by larger cultural forces, but in the end historians are in the business of explaining why people–as active human agents–have behaved in the past in the way that they did.” [p. 12] Finally, historians also understand the past is complex. In many cases, we can’t neatly fit human behavior into separate pigeon holes. Human behavior is messy. People can be hypocritical. People can act one way in one situation and completely differently in another situation. Sometimes those different behaviors are diametrically opposed.

We often hear people insulting others as “revisionists.” People who do so have a poor understanding of the work historians do. All historians are revisionists. “Because we live in the present, far removed from the events of the past, our ability to construct what happened in bygone eras is limited. This is why the doing of history requires an act of the imagination. Sometimes we do not have the sources to provide a complete picture of ‘what happened’ at any given time. As historian Peter Hoffer notes, ‘History is impossible. Nothing I have written or could write will change that brute fact.’ Or, in the words of historian David Lowenthal, ‘No historical account can recover the totality of any past events, because their content is virtually infinite. The most detailed narrative incorporates only a minute fraction of even the relevant past; the sheer pastness of the past precludes its total reconstruction. … The historian must accept Herbert Butterfield’s ‘tremendous truth–the impossibility of history.’ ” [pp. 15-16] As Professor Fea tells us, “Even the best accounts of the past are open to change based on new evidence or the work of historians who approach a subject with a different lens of interpretation. In this sense, history is more about competing perceptions of the past than it is about nailing down a definitive account of a specific event or life. … While the past never changes, history changes all the time. … Those who believe ‘revisionism’ is a negative term often misunderstand the way it is used by historians. Revisionists are not in the business of changing the facts of history. Any good revisionist interpretation of history will be based on evidence–documents or other artifacts that people in the past left behind. This type of reconstruction of the past always takes place in community. We know whether a particular revision of the past is good because it is vetted by a community of historians. This is called peer review. When bad history does make it into print, we rely on the community of historians to call this to our attention through reviews.” [pp. 15-17]

When we study the past we have to remember the past is a foreign country to us. People there thought differently and did things differently from us in our present time. “We are all in search of a usable past–a past that we can consume or put to good use as we live our lives in the present. But sometimes the past is not easily consumable. Sometimes what happened in previous eras has no direct relevance for our lives today.” [p. 48] And we have to be careful not to try to use the past to advance an agenda. “Good scholars of the past must, at some level, practice historicism. By trying to understand the past on its own terms, the historian treats it with integrity rather than manipulating it or superimposing his or her values on it to advance an agenda in the present.” [p. 52] Professor Fea refers to Gordon Wood telling us “if someone wants to use the study of the past to change the world, he should forgo a career as a historian and run for office.” [p. 54] Because the past is a foreign country, to understand it we have to have empathy. “Empathy requires the historian to step into the shoes of historical actors in order to see the world as they did, to understand them on their own terms and not ours.” [p. 58]

This book was a pleasure to read and though it’s less than 200 pages in length it’s packed with great information for those of us seeking to be serious students of history. Not only do I highly recommend it, I think it’s required.



  1. Jimmy Dick · · Reply

    John Fea is an outstanding historian. I’ve read his works and this book is a great example of a historian explaining why the study of history is important as well as how to study history. I’ve pulled pieces of the book out for part of my introduction to history lesson in my history courses. If I could ever get the dinosaurs in my department to make changes in the way they do things this book would be part of the course.

    Of the Five C’s, I think explaining contextualization to students may be the most important. The use of primary sources in the coursework is something we all should be employing, but we must place them in context and explain what this means to students. Otherwise, the sources are just a jumble of words with little to no meaning. We see how sources are cherry picked for quotes all the time with no attention paid to the context which results in a massive distortion of the historical record for polemic purposes.

    This fits in with my belief that the survey courses are the most important history courses taught in college today. It is in those courses that instructors can teach historical thinking skills to students which are applicable across many disciplines as well as meaningful for their everyday life.

    1. Thanks for the comment, Jimmy. I’m in agreement with you.

  2. Interesting post. It sounds like a book I’d like to read. One problem I see, and maybe I’m misreading this, is that it misses why people call some historians revisionists. It’s because – purposefully or not – key information is left out that changes what the historian presents. They may correct it later, but just as when similar things happen today, the mistake spreads like wildfire and the correction is forgotten.

    1. There is plenty in the book that’s not in my review.

  3. Phil LeDuc · · Reply

    Another positive review of this book comes from Civil War historian Robert Tracy McKenzie at his blog – https://faithandamericanhistory.wordpress.com/2013/09/26/why-study-history/ . The praise seems to be pretty general for it, so it’s now in my Amazon.com shopping cart.

    1. It’s really a very good book.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: