What Is History? Introducing History to Kids
History Is the Human Story
What is History?
History is the story of people on the planet. It is the human story. The story of everything that people have ever done since recognizable humans first evolved between 150,000 and 200,000 years ago.
That's some story.
It is the story of changing human cultures, politics, lifestyles, beliefs and creativity.
Herodotus - An Early Historian
"Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it."
- George Santayana
Why is History Important?
Before you study something it's always a good idea to think about why it is important.
One reason I think history is important is just that it is great fun and sometimes very exciting. It's like being a time-detective, hunting through the records and the archaeological artefacts, looking for clues that might help build up a picture of what happened long ago.
Another very good reason to study history is that it is our story. By understanding our past and where we came from we hope to better understand where we are now and even decide about what might happen in the future.
The way things are now is a consequence of the things that happened in the past. The way things will be tomorrow will be a consequence of the way things are now.
To understand all this, it is very important that we study history.
History is the richest of all stories that can be told as it is the story of all people, in all places, at all times. It is a beautiful story. It can be a sad and shocking story, too. But it is the most exciting story there is, because we can decide what will happen in the next chapter!
How do We Study History?
Well, as a lot of the human story has already been discovered, a good place to start is by reading history books and visiting museums.
History books are written by historians. Historians are the women and men who study history.
But when you read a history book written by a historian, how did the historian discover all the things that she writes about?
Historians do read other historian's history books! History books are called secondary sources. That means that the information in them is second-hand or has already been found out by someone else.
But professional historians also study primary sources. Primary sources are writings and artefacts that actually come from the people and the time that the historian wants to find out about.
"History is the version of past events that people have decided to agree upon."
- Napoleon Bonaparte
Historians read diaries and accounts and tombstones and even shopping lists; they look at remnants of clothes and tools and jewellery and buildings left from the past.
From these clues, they build up a picture of how people lived and what they thought was important years ago.
Understanding Primary and Secondary Sources
What Do Historians Do?
Well, we know historians study history and we know a bit about how but what do historians actually do on a typical working day?
There's no doubt that the range of activities that a professional historian (someone who earns a living by studying and writing about history) is involved in can be very broad. Some even make shows for television and radio.
Next, we'll look at just what things an historian might get up to in a typical working day. But first, have you ever heard of the PBS show 'The History Detectives'? Watch this fascinating interview with one of the historians who works on that show, Dr. Gwendolyn Wright:
Interview with Historian Gwendolyn Wright
Historian's Job Description
As we said before, historians can be involved in all kinds of different activities during the course of a typical working day.
So in the table below, you can see a selection of the places an historian might go and the work they might do there. Some of it might surprise you!
Things Historians Do
To carry out research into secondary sources
Gain an understanding of what other historians have already done
To read blogs and news sites to make sure that they are up to date with the latest discoveries
To keep updated with the latest news and events in their field
To meet other historians and share information and ideas
To work collaboratively and keep a 'finger on the pulse' of current research.
To examine original artefacts and primary source material
Primary research can lead to new inights and discoveries.
To conduct, direct or examine new excavations.
Understand the significance of archaeological sites.
Meetings with government ministers and funding bodies.
To advocate on behalf of protected sites, educational facilities and future research funding.
To ensure that important historical artefacts and research projects are protected and funded.
School, College, University
To teach, lecture and tutor.
Ensuring that a new generation of historians are educated and enthused.
To write papers and books
To publish and share the results of research with others.
Research is an Essential Part of an Historian's Work
How Do You Become An Historian?
If you are interested in becoming an historian then here is what you will need to do:
- Do well at school, particularly in History, English, Math and Social Science classes.
- Study at University and achieve at least a Bachelor's degree in History. Ideally, you will go on to study for a Master's and then a research based PhD.
- Visit museums and historical/archaeological sites as often as you can and keep a notebook, photographs and other evidence of your interest.
- Read history books!
- Join your local Historical Society.
So it is important that you study hard to achieve your goals. It is also important to show an interest outside your academic studies and keep a portfolio of any activities and visits that you undertake.
It is not easy to become a professional historian but if you are passionate and determined it can be a fascinating and rewarding career.
Historians Attend Academic Conferences
What Skills Do Historians Need?
Aside from the academic achievements that we have looked at above, it takes a certain kind of person to make really good historian.
"History is a cyclic poem written by time upon the memories of man."
- Shelley, English Poet.
These are some of the qualities that you should have to be successful in this field:
- An enquiring mind. You need to be the sort of person who is always asking, "Why?"
- Patience and perseverance are very important skills for any historian - just as they are for detectives!
- As you will often have to deal with people from all sections of society, good interpersonal skills are a must. You need to know how to listen and communicate well.
- Excellent written language skills. Half your job is going to be finding things out. The other half is going to be writing about it in a way that other academics and the general public can understand, so a good command of written English is very important.
- A love of people and human stories. After all, that is the subject of your study. You need to be passionately interested (maybe even a little nosey!) in the lives of other people.
- The ability to see things afresh and 'think outside the box' as a lot of the time, in the face of new evidence that you discover, you may need to let go some of what you and others thought before and re-think your understanding of history.
There are many other qualities - such as being well organized and a good timekeeper and so on - that you would need to be a good professional historian but the ones listed above are likely the most important of them all.
Do you think history is important?
A Last Word
I hope you have enjoyed finding out a bit more about what history is, how we study it and what historians get up to for a living!
I think history is very interesting and exciting - and it isn't just about dusty libraries and old bones.
And do you know what I think is one of the most exciting things about it? It's that whatever happens next in the course of our history - what story is written on the blank pages of tomorrow - is in our own hands.
The history of the future is whatever we do now.
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© 2013 Amanda Littlejohn