Thursday, November 08, 2007

History is all that's happened


History includes everything that has happened. But that's not the way we tend to conceive of it. In practice, we tend to see it as something much narrower.

There are three ways we tend to narrow it: by focusing on signficant events in 'grand narratives', which happened sufficiently long ago, and focusing on the facts associated with those events.

We tend to just see it as the events in the grand narrative of nations -- wars, successions, the discoveries of new lands, etc. Or in the narratives describing the development of science, tehnology, religion, ecnomics, etc.

We tend to only include sufficiently distant events. Recent events don't seem sufficiently 'historical'.

And we tend to focus on history as a sequence of events -- "one damn thing after another" as Henry Ford is quoted as saying.

Here are some possible reasons for this narrow view: this is the picture of history that tends to get taught in schools, and those are the features that tend to most strongly differentiate history from other fields, and are thus the ones that stick in our minds.

I think this narrow view of history gives a distorted sense of the value of knowing about history. Seeing it this way, we might wonder what is the value in knowing facts like who-did-what-when.

I think the real value in history is lies in drawing out patterns and higher-level conclusions from all of the things we know have happened. This is not just a matter of facts about significant events, and can also include details from the very recent past.

Patterns in economic and technological development, for example. Or general conclusions you can draw about the psychology and behavior of people and groups of people like societies - conclusions that are relevant to today's world.

Many people seem unaware that many questions can be answered by looking at history. As a contrary example, Paul Graham uses many historical points of justification in his essays.

Version history
  • 14/04/06, 00:18 - original
  • 08/11/07, 13:10 major revision. changed expression, and added: people excluding recent events; conceptsCategoriesAndDefinitions tag


  1. And what's wrong with a narrative? Don't you love a good story? Also, there is a reason why "recent" event are not considered "history" as such. It's because it's hard to see the "end" of the event. Take princess Diana's death for example. Some would argue that sufficent time has passed for it to be considered a "historical event", however the British colonial inquest into her death only started this year! Since it's still developing it's not yet history because the "historical prospective" is missing.

    I do, however, agree that history in school is taught in a way that does not excite everyone. I myself love history, especially the ancient kind. I actually actively avoided modern history in school. For me drawing parallels with current happening from historical prospective is second nature and I enjoy it. But I also enjoy drawing patterns between what's happening now and books I have read, TV shows I have watched and other random bits of facts, figures, knowledge of events. I.e. I think I am able to draw patterns and parallels well because I have the kind of "broad knowledge" that you have previously critisised in your posts related to quiz shows such as "Australia's brainist kid".

  2. Hi,
    I don't think there's anything wrong with a narrative, and I don't think I said that in the post. And while I am in defensive mode :-) I don' tthink there is anything wrong with "broad knowledge" -- I don't think that was what I was criticising in that other post.