How Does the Public Define “History”?

I came across this report from the American Historical Association. It reports on a survey conducted to gauge what the general public thinks about history. “Practicing historians probably have a good idea, even a sophisticated one, about what history is. But such definitions are likely complex and nuanced, and there is little reason to think that laypeople share them. A two-pronged goal of this survey was to determine how the public conceives of history and how such conceptions help shape other attitudes toward the past. “

According to the report, “Given a selection of five possibilities, two-thirds of the poll’s respondents indicated a belief that history is primarily an assembly of names, dates, and other facts about what happened in the past (Figure 1). This belief is not strictly incorrect, insofar as basic facts serve as building blocks of serious historical inquiry. Similarly, laypersons are sometimes heavily reliant on professional historians’ interpretations of the past, especially for distant events where methods and language may constitute formidable roadblocks. In such cases, understandings of history depend greatly on what historians say about it. Still, the public’s history-equals-facts outlook highlights a gulf between practicing historians and the audiences the former serve. While acknowledging the fundamental importance of facts, academics generally see history more as an explanation of past experiences. In fact, when Burkholder polled working historians and other professionals on this issue at a virtual AHA session in January 2021, the great majority selected the explanation’s definition, while nobody opted for facts. Yet only a small minority (17 percent) of those in the national survey shared professionals’ explanatory views (also Figure 1). Based on their survey from the 1990s, Rosenzweig and Thelen likewise perceived a disconnect between professional and amateur attitudes toward and uses of the past, suggesting that this dynamic remains largely unchanged in the aggregate. Subsequent studies by Sam Wineburg and others suggest that historians think about the past in fundamentally different ways than do nonhistorians, thus framing the issue as “historical thinking” as opposed to a basic mastery of factual material.

Figure 1: Survey respondents’ preferred best definitions for “history.” (D1)

The report also tells us, “The importance of history-as-facts versus history-as-explanation outlooks becomes evident when considering cross-tabulations. Notably, one sees a certain amount of progress in breaching this divide as a function of age (Figure 2). Whereas 69 percent of those age 65+ and 70 percent of those 50–64 saw history mostly as raw facts, the numbers decline with younger cohorts: 65 percent for ages 30–49, dropping to 59 percent for ages 18–29 (though all of these remain majority figures). Meanwhile, there is a corresponding increase in those viewing history as an explanation as one moves down the age charts, from 15 percent in the 65+ group to 22 percent in the 18–29 one. Whether this is a function of curricular changes over the decades is not certain, though we note that there was broad agreement across age cohorts that high school history courses heavily favored factual command over asking questions about the past (Figure 3). College-level classes were not as skewed toward raw content, but even here, 44 percent of those surveyed said that names, dates, and facts predominated.”

Figure 2: By age group: Respondents’ preferred best definitions for “history.” (D1)
Figure 3: By age group: Respondents’ experiences in high school history courses. (V13)

The report further says, “Political party identification likewise correlated with chosen definitions of history (Figure 4). A majority of respondents, whether self-identifying as Democrat, Republican, independent, or no preference, perceived history as defined by facts. That said, whereas Democrats, independents, and those with no preference all fell within a fairly narrow band of 58 percent to 63 percent agreement on this issue, Republicans skewed much more heavily (81 percent) toward a history-as-facts position. Political divisions also linked with beliefs that history is primarily an explanation of past events: whereas 21 percent of Democrats supported that viewpoint, only 11 percent of Republicans did. The latter group was also far less likely to see historians’ interpretations as authoritative.”

Figure 4: By political party: Respondents’ preferred best definitions for “history.” (D1)

Finally, the report gives us this interesting data: “A heightened curiosity about the wider world corresponded with a belief that history explains the past, as opposed to merely describing that past via factual recall. Those seeing history as explanation were twice as likely (34 percent versus 17 percent) to indicate great interest in learning about the histories of foreign places or peoples (Figure 5). Such trends carried over, though to lesser extents, to greater interest in persons perceived as different from the respondents (32 percent versus 17 percent; Figure 6) and in events from over 500 years ago (25 percent versus 19 percent; Figure 7).”

Figure 5: Respondents’ interest in learning more about histories of foreign places or peoples as a function of perceptions of history. *Fewer than 100 responses. (D1 x S7)
Figure 6: Respondents’ interest in learning more about people perceived as different as a function of perceptions of history. *Fewer than 100 responses. (D1 x S7)
Figure 7: Respondents’ interest in learning more about history over 500 years ago as a function of perceptions of history. *Fewer than 100 responses. (D1 x S7)

The report concludes this means, “The public’s persistent view of ‘history’ as mostly an assembly of facts results in a simplistic understanding of the past, one that is at odds with that of practicing historians. Overcoming this impasse is both important and difficult, given the public’s long-standing outlook and an education system that often reinforces simplicity. Nevertheless, there are signs of an appetite for history-as-inquiry, which results in not only a better understanding of the past, but increased interest in the broader world.”

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