What is History For?

John M. Lane

“Who controls the past controls the future, who controls the present controls the past”

George Orwell, Nineteen-Eighty Four, 1949


                                  From the time they first put their story into writing until the present time, human beings have been in conflict over how to record their story and what that story says about them. Humans battle over history because history is more than the story we tell about ourselves. History, outside of the academy, is about power and domination. Who can tell the story as they see it? The power to tell a group, society, or country’s story is the power to control the narrative and arc of history.

Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University – taken by the author.


The Work of Historians

                                 To study and write history, you must begin with inquiry, what attorneys call discovery. What are the events of history, the dates, places, personalities? Historical events have causes. What were the immediate and underlying, long-term causal factors of a historical event? History does not just happen. Were the factors geographic, economic, personality-driven, philosophical, ethnic/racial, or cultural? Were they matters of miscalculation and poor communication? Historians must consider all these factors and many more as they attempt to assemble an accurate picture as to what happened and why? Whether they are teaching or writing history, historians must make a choice. Every aspect of every event cannot be written about or taught. One-volume histories do not have “everything” in them. Neither do multi-volume histories. Winston Churchill’s multi-volume “History of the Second World War” is not a comprehensive history. It is Churchill’s version of the war, based upon what he chose to include.  

                        Teaching, especially survey courses, is also problematic. What is to be included, what is to be left out. I spent three weeks teaching the Second World War in the World Civilization/ Western Civilization courses I taught. First, I believe it was the pivotal event of the 20th Century, and second because my main area of historical scholarship is Military History. Another educator, teaching the same courses, could emphasize the social history of Europe in the mid-19th century.  The “curriculum gods” will be happy if both are “covered” (a horrible term for anybody involved in education to use) because both items have been checked off the bureaucratic checklist. As an educator, I made every effort to incorporate marginalized groups into my instruction in a way I hope was seamless and barely noticeable. It seems to have worked, I never received negative feedback for mentioning Frederick Douglass (probably the most photographed American of the 19th century) alongside William Lloyd Garrison as prominent abolitionists, or the 20thMaine Infantry (key to the US Army victory at Gettysburg) and the 54th Massachusetts Infantry (the first African American combat unit, “Glory,” in the Civil War), both had key roles in the eventual Union victory. Finally, “Crazy Horse,” the Native American leader at the Little Big Horn, was one of the top American military tactical leaders of the 19th century. 

                                Historians have always argued over and will continue to argue over the interpretation and revision of historical events. History is incomplete because new information is constantly being discovered. After careful and thorough peer review, this new information adds to the facts used to study and write history. Each new generation of historians interprets and revises history. The current generation of historians, in general, has many different interpretations of the events of the Second World War, for example, than the generation that wrote the histories of that war in the 1950s. One apparent reason is that the current generation has access to information that the 1950s (and 60s) historians did not have. Another reason is that the political and cultural background in which the histories were written deeply affected the finished product. These occurrences do not make either history wrong; it just makes them different. Beginning in the 1980s, for example, the role of women, African Americans, and other minorities began to appear in American histories of the Second World War. That was not the case in earlier histories. Does this make the earlier histories less critical? No, it does not. The story has simply been expanded to be more inclusive. No one’s prior role has been lessened.  Studying those earlier histories is vitally important for the historian/scholar as a starting point for continued scholarship and research.  

 Commonly acknowledged branches of History:

                          Political, Social, Economic, Art, Diplomatic, Women’s, Science, Environmental, Intellectual, and Cultural. New branches of scholarship have emerged in African American, Hispanic, Native American, and LGBTQ history. These branches can stand on their own, separate from Social or cultural history. In addition, historians teach and conduct research in European, Asian, and African History, as well, the Americas. These areas can be broken down to the regional and country levels. Military History (my main area of interest) is often seen as part of diplomatic history.

Economics, Geography, Psychology, Sociology, Political Science, and Anthropology are “Social Studies/Science”. History is not. History is part of the humanities.

  Some Interpretations of History:

                         Whig Interpretation of History- …” an approach to historiography that presents history as a journey from a dark and terrible past to a glorious present.”

                          Marxist Interpretation of History-…” history is governed by universal laws and that according to these laws, a society moves through a series of stages with the transition between stages being driven by class struggle.”

                          Universal History-…” aiming at the presentation of a history of all humanity as a coherent unit.” The difference between Social and Cultural History: “Social History is the systems and mechanisms which govern human relations and events, while cultural history is the study of the people’s beliefs, understandings, and motivations.”


The Profession

                             Historians are trained at the bachelor’s, master’s, and doctorate levels on conducting research, studying the literature of history, communicating their findings through lectures and presentations, and writing history for others in the academy and the public. It is the professional responsibility of the historian, no matter whether that historian is a professor/scholar, classroom teacher, museum curator, archivist, or public historian, that only verifiable truth is presented as history. 

                            History is one of the few professions where untrained amateurs are allowed to practice. They can write books, articles, and essays. They can participate in historical panels and discussions. Historical conferences and symposiums can say they are doing historical work and even produce lavish reports and pronouncements without having one professionally trained historian at the meeting.

                              Over the years, some of the best histories have been written by “uncredentialed historians.” Over the years, some of the worse histories have also been written by “uncredentialed historians.” That history has done and is still doing untold damage to the education process and the nation’s body politic. As a society in the 21st century, we would never allow untrained and uncredentialed lawyers, physicians, architects, or occupational therapists to practice in their professions. 

                             Professional historians have little recourse when “non-professionals” perform historical malpractice, except for public sanction in the cases of obvious plagiarism or factual malfeasance. History is considered a field in education that anybody can teach if they have some type of degree. Just give them the textbook and the textbook materials, and everything is taken care of. Depth of knowledge, experience with the literature, and the ability to recognize legitimate historical scholarship are factors that receive very little consideration, especially when a position needs a “body” to fill it.

The Politics of History

“War is too serious to be entrusted to Generals.”

French President Georges Clemenceau, during the First World War

                         There are many people who also believe history is too serious to be entrusted to historians. In the United States, the History curriculum is controlled by district curriculum committees; those committees answer to elected school boards, the school boards answer to politically active citizens, and state boards of education; ultimate power resides with state legislatures. In deciding how history is taught, history educators and historians are rarely consulted at any level of this process. The narrative of history has been turned into a political act with the purpose being to control what history is taught and how it is taught. For many, maintaining the “Whig” version of history is vitally important to preserving societal control and domination. The expansion of the narrative of history to include all people and all historical events of a nation is seen, by many, as a threat. It would mean coming to terms with that nation’s past and disposing of the mythologies, lies, and half-truths that have come to be considered accurate, truthful history over the centuries.

                         Consequently, in the 21st century, the fiercest, most emotional battles in the continuous culture wars are how and what history should be taught in K-12 schools. These battles are slowly working their way into university history departments. The struggle over how history textbooks are written and placed in schools has become epic political battles in many states and locales. History educators and administrators are professionally responsible for ensuring that the best books and materials are used in their classrooms. However, their professional judgment in making those choices should be trusted, and in many cases, it is not.  The author has personally experienced debates with parents as to whether a history textbook is too “liberal” (the cover of the world history textbook had a building that appeared to be in the Middle East). The controversy has reached the point where history textbooks must be written and edited exclusively for certain parts of the country to be sold. Religious and political groups can have history books written specifically for their “special” needs. “Home-Schooling” parents also have access to unique materials that won’t offend their historical and cultural sensibilities.

                         Amid the current history and culture wars, an article named “A Snapshot of The Public’s Views on History” was published in the September 2021 issue of the American Historical Association’s magazine, Perspectives on History. The findings of the authors were both exciting and hopeful. Facts appear to be important to the general public: “… disputes in the public sphere tend to focus on the “what” of history- particularly what parts of history are taught or not taught in schools- as opposed to how materials can be interpreted to offer better explanations of the past and the present…In sum, poll results show that in the mind of our nation’s population, raw facts cast a very long shadow over the field of history and any dynamism therein.” (Burkholder and Schaffer 28)

                           Most Americans do not learn their history from reading or in the classroom. “The top three go-to sources for historical knowledge were all in video format, thus being a microcosm for Americans’ general predilection for consuming information from screens. More traditional sources, such as museums, nonfiction books, and college courses filled out the middle and lower ranks of this hierarchy” …  “Perhaps this helps to explain why 90 percent of the survey takers felt that one can learn history anywhere, not just in school, and why 73 percent reported that it is easier to learn about the past when it is presented as entertainment.” (Burkholder and Schaffer 28). 

Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Pexels.com

Percentage of respondents reporting utilization of sources of the past since January 2019

  1. Documentary film/ TV 69%
  2. Fictional film/TV 66%
  3. TV News 62%
  4. Non-Wikipedia 59%
  5. Newspaper/Magazine 55%
  6. Wikipedia 46%
  7. Religious document 39%
  8. Historic sites visit 38%
  9. Discussion with community member 37%
  10. Museum Visit 35%
  11. Genealogy work 33%
  12. Nonfiction history book 32%
  13. Historical fiction book26%
  14. Social Media 26%
  15. Podcast/ radio program 25%
  16. History lecture 12%
  17. History-related video game 11%
  18. DNA test 11%
  19. College Course 8%

(Burkholder and Schaffer 29) 

                       Museums took the top spot for historical dependability, and college history professors were fourth as reliable informants. Fictional films and television were near the bottom in trustworthiness. (Burkholder and Schaffer 28)

                      It appears that yet, neither side can claim victory in the history/culture war. “Over three-fourths of respondents, regardless of age group, education level, gender, geographic location, or political affiliation, said it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others. The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups and the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics. “(Burkholder and Schaffer 31)


                 Interest in history among the general population remains strong. The political battle over who will control the narrative of history shows no signs of abating. In the end, some way must develop for all the American people to share a standard, inclusive, historical narrative, no matter what the source. Along with the Constitution, shared history is vital to the future of democracy.

Work Cited

Burkholder, Peter, and Dana Schaffer, “A Snapshot of the Public’s Views on History,” Perspectives on History: The News Magazine of the American Historical Association, September 2021 Volume 59:6


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