With simplest words, history is the story of the human experience. While history teaching originally focused on the facts of political history such as wars and dynasties, contemporary history education has assumed a more integrative approach offering students an expanded view of historical knowledge that includes aspects different subjects, such as of geography, religion, anthropology, philosophy, economics, technology, art and society. This wider embrace is reflected in the vague but ubiquitous term, “social studies.
History has no subject matter of its own. History derives its content entirely from other disciplines, especially from the social sciences. Before the disciplines of political science, economics, archeology and sociology had been invented, it was history that dealt with these realms of knowledge. Historians are the generalizers, the synthesizers. They look at an event or series of events and try to bring relevant knowledge from all fields to bear on understanding the situation.
Viewed in this light, history is a verb, not a noun; it is more an approach than a subject. This approach is sometimes termed the “historical method,” which generally involves trying to identify all relevant information about an historical development, critically examining sources for validity and bias, then selecting and organizing this information into a well-constructed narrative that sheds some light on human experience.
History is not static; our views of history are constantly changing as new discoveries are made that cast doubt on previous knowledge. New interpretations of historical events frequently come along to challenge older views. Was the Viatnam War really worth of? Or was Ronald Ragan the grand statesman of his age or a less admirable figure? Such newer, alternative explanations are termed revisionist history. The historian, following the historical method, tries to determine if the evidence is real, accurate or biased.
After making these judgments, the historian selects some evidence to include in his narrative, and he rejects other sources. The finished product reflects the judgments, point-of-view, biases and errors of the historian himself. This is a highly subjective process throughout. But it should be remembered that history did happen, and without it we would be largely ignorant of the workings of the world and of the human animal. Conscientious historians are aware of the pitfalls in their search for historical truth, and they try to avoid them.
Students who are aware of the inherent limitations of history will be better prepared to evaluate the validity of historical evidence and historical accounts and consequently more adept at evaluating the conflicting evidence and opinions surrounding the important issues of their own time. Thus the study of history can teach many critical skills. That is, studying history helps sharpen the critical “thinking” and communication skills essential to success in school and in most professions.