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How and Why We Study History

Throughout the ages history has indirectly repeated itself. From wars and disputes, ground-breaking events of importance to tragedies that have shook the world. Events have often played out that mirror through the ages. Robert Penn Warren stated (1990, p.167) “History cannot give us a program for the future, but it can give us a fuller understanding of ourselves, and of our common humanity, so that we can better face the future.” The study of history provides us with in essence a window to the past and allows us to gain insight and understanding that our ancestors never had.

Not in that we should look to directly emulate history, but in that through past trials and errors, achievements and failures we in turn have history as our source of which we can refer. As well as the gift of hindsight that history delivers, through the study of the subject it allows us to find a greater understanding of ourselves and the society in which we exist.

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Without knowledge of our past and where we came from we would lack in effect any true form of identity or heritage.

The study of history itself differs from other disciplines in that it is always current and new. Each day that passes means another day lies within the history book. It borrows numerous techniques or methods from a wide variety of disciplines such as maths, science and sociology etc. yet is itself the foundation of which every subject or discipline came to be in terms that they themselves and their formation can all be studied within history.

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People often believe the role of a historian is merely remembering key dates and events that have unfolded and the people and places involved. To the contrary the work of a historian is never so black and white. The study of history is more comparable to putting together a vast jigsaw puzzle from scratch, meticulously

piecing available information together to make a clearer image or bigger picture of the past. However, historians as human beings are influenced by their own personal views and perspectives. Sometimes agendas of individuals, groups or nations can be the influence of history.

The reasoning behind this can often be varied with many purposes ranging from unintentional misinterpretations, simply differing social climates and views to political motivation such as the documentation of events being manipulated for the purpose of propaganda. Which ultimately means that history as recorded can often be open to interpretation, and in turn can be disputed or contain varying accounts.

‘The Nanjing massacre’ is one such example of a stark differing opinion from historians and governments alike relating to the opposing views of how two nations perceive the historical events that transpired. The events unfolded over a six week period beginning from December of 1937. From the Chinese perspective this saw Japanese imperial forces murder somewhere within the region of 60,000 to 400,000 unarmed Chinese civilians. What occurred is often referred to as ‘the rape of Nanjing’ due to claims of excessive and uncalled for violence, widespread rape, and sexual assault and looting.

The death toll is still debated by to this day today, not just because of the inaccessibility of Japans secret files from the time, but the differing stand points. China claim 300,000 plus Chinese citizens lost their lives during the period, whilst Japan say it was no more than 200,000 and it was less of an orchestrated massacre and more a case that those who died where casualties of war. Japans historians

claim the death toll was far lower and that such statements on the events that occurred from a Chinese perspective where a tool of fabricated propaganda. Almost

100 years removed from the events that took place the differing perspectives of the Nanjing massacre are still prevalent today and are the causes of many tense relations between Japan and other Asian nations within the region.

Another historical event with a varying perspective is that of the British and the Russians relating to how the Napoleonic wars actually ended. In terms of the British view, Napoleons final defeat at waterloo at the hands of an Anglo-led allied army led by the Duke of Wellington in 1815 brought an end to his conquest of Europe and is a much celebrated victory within British history and culture.

Although this is factually true, the Russian perspective deems that the war against Napoleons conquest of Europe ended after with his unsuccessful assault on Russia in 1812. During this period Napoleons army was cut from somewhere within the region of 650,000 men to under 100,000. The Russian forces in turn pushed back against his hold across Europe and view his retreat as the act that ended the Napoleonic wars as a whole, not the battle of Waterloo. Which is deemed as somewhat of an unnecessary battle in their eyes and an inevitability rather than a great British achievement.

Primary and secondary sources

The key differentiate between primary and secondary resources relates to whether the source in question contains first or second hand information. As an example, a newspaper article wrote about the ending of world war 2 that was wrote within the same period of the ending of the war would be classed as a primary source.

However a newspaper article wrote about the ending of the war 10 years later, regardless of whether it shares many of the same key points of the initial story,

would be a secondary source. The reason primary sources can often be deemed more viable in terms of reliability is due to the fact that they tend to offer a first-hand account. Whereas secondary sources often depend on second hand information.

There are many forms of primary sources that can be useful resources within the study of history. The great pyramids of Giza would be a primary source that give us insight into to the advanced building techniques and religious beliefs within ancient Egyptian times. A sword dating to the medieval ages would show us the type of weaponry and craftsmanship of the era and a diary kept by a German soldier during World War 1 would give us a 1st hand perspective of life in the trenches.

A short list of others sources that are deemed primary could include archives and manuscripts, photographs, audio/video recordings and books/newspapers published at the time.

Secondary sources are still useful to historians in terms of research purposes, however they must be used with an air of caution. As secondary sources are not first-hand information, accounts or objects they can be open to variations of the facts or personal bias. For example a biography on Martin Luther king post his death, written by someone he had never met. Which was dependant on the testimony of people he knew during his life, wouldn’t carry the same weight in terms of reliability as an autobiography wrote by King himself. However if Martin Luther King never had the opportunity or want to write his own autobiography. Then a biography all be it as a secondary source would still be an invaluable tool if used accordingly. Other sources that would be classed as secondary include magazine articles on historical events, recreations of paintings or statues of an era gone by, reference books, biographical pieces and movies related to past periods or events.

The Evening Sentinel – 22 November, 1963

The resource listed above would be classed as a primary source. It comes from the Evening Sentinel, a newspaper publication from Carlisle, Pennsylvania and was printed on the evening of the 22nd of November 1963. The purpose of a newspaper is to provide facts in order to inform its readers. In this case the purpose of the article above was to inform citizens of Carlisle and the surrounding areas that President John Franklin Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, Texas. The key value of this as a primary resource is how current to the event it was published. President Kennedy was assassinated on the afternoon of the 22nd of November 1963. This article made print that very same evening. With that in mind the report provides key points of the event reported as well as the immediate aftermath and consensus to the assassination. With this is mind from a research perspective the article contains the exact mood and tone of the infamous moment in history

The possible limitations to the article could potentially arise from the fact that Carlisle, PA is around 1360 miles from where the actual assassination took place in

Dallas, TX. Which means unless they had a reporter on hand in Dallas itself, their reporter responsible for the article would have to have gone off the word of others. Making the information they have printed second hand information. In this there could lie certain inadvertent factual inaccuracies. When you factor the distance from the event and look at how quickly the article went to print after, despite the positive points relating to capturing the ‘knee jerk reaction’ of the assassination, one has to wonder if the reporters had time to gather all of the key facts and accuracies of the incident before going to print.

Wall painting from Tutankhamen’s tomb; Egypt, c.1300BCE

This wall painting from the tomb of Egyptian Pharaoh Tutankhamen is another example of a primary resource. The painting originates from Tutankhamen’s burial site which is located in the Valley of the Kings in Egypt. The tomb was discovered by British archaeologist Howard Carter in 1922 underneath workmen’s huts, and has the site designation KV62.The purpose of the wall paintings relates to the ancient Egyptian beliefs of the time. It was thought that the paintings would aid the deceased on their way towards the afterlife and often displayed them as content and happy after death.

In its purpose, the wall paintings within tombs bring value in terms of how they display the beliefs of the time in ancient Egypt. Through the paintings historians are able to interpret the picture to gain an idea of who is buried there, and their stature and position within the society they lived. In more practical terms it displays the artistry, techniques and potentially painting materials used in that era.

Some limitations of this source could relate to the bias in terms of presentation and depiction of those featured within the painting, such as in this case a powerful ruler. Furthermore there is no date to when the actual work was painted, nor the name to record who the artist was. For these reasons amongst others paintings are often deemed more suggestive than definitive, and depend of further documented evidence use in conjunction to form a clearer vision of the information it contains.

Wikepedia page – viewed 4/7/2018

Henry IV of France

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopediaThe Wikipedia page listed above would be classed as a secondary resource. Wikipedia is an on online encyclopaedia created in January 2001 by Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger. The purpose of this articles on Wikipedia is to provide information on a multitude of various topics e.g. events, subjects, groups and individuals etc.

The values of the resource links to it accessibility. Wikipedia is available to anyone to use and its contents of information are vast. It is the largest online encyclopaedia containing over 5 million articles. With Wikipedia not falling under the umbrella of corporations there is on average less chance of political or national bias controlling the content of its pages. It also lists of some of the sources used to put together the information in the article within its references

However one of the main limitations of Wikipedia and any page within its contents is the nature of its open content. This means that anybody who has signed up to Wikipedia can add and change content within the pages. This can lead to factual inaccuracies, lies and bias rather than reliable fact. It is not possible to use Wikipedia as a reliable or citeable resource due to this and the fact that it is more a collection of information sourced from other sources.

The Victorian war on terror

The article, The Victorian War on terror was published within the November of 2013 issue of BBC’s History magazine. It was wrote by Dr Shane Kenna who holds a PhD in history. He has also wrote books on the subject and was viewed as one of the foremost authorities on the Fenian movement.

The article is an informative piece and its purpose is to provide information in relation to the terror attacks that occurred within the Victorian era at the hands of those linked to the Fenian movement, and the lengths and measures taken to combat and prevent further terroristic attacks on British soil.

The article takes account of the significant events within the period relating to terror attacks in the Victorian period. Not only does it provide information on the events themselves, but it is also informative in terms of giving an inside understanding of terms used and the groups and individuals involved.

Given that this article was wrote for the BBC the chances of it containing any anti British opinions relating to these events could lead to the piece containing a rather one sided perspective. There are many contributing factors which led to the actions of the Fenian movement that have been omitted in this article. For example there was a view from many Irish people that during the great famine the British government did as little as possible to aid them in a time of great need. Some even viewed the lack of support as a form of genocide.

As with any secondary resource, which the two above examples are, they both share the fundamental limitation in that the information provided within them surmounts to a secondary account. Yet this does not take away from their usefulness or informative nature and value.

Reference list

  • Ruppersburg, H. (1990) Robert Penn Warren and the American imagination. Athens, Georgia USA: University of Georgia Press.

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Cite this page

How and Why We Study History. (2019, Dec 06). Retrieved from

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