1.3 Why Write History?
To study history is to do history. And
the only way we can do history is to examine the
available records from the past and then write about
them. So, doing history means writing history. To learn
about the past we have two alternatives. The first is to
go to the primary sources themselves. In other words, if
you wanted to learn about Galileo's astronomical and
philosophical arguments for the motion of the earth, you
could do no better than read his Dialogue Concerning
the Two Chief World Systems--Ptolemaic and Copernican
(1632). The second alternative and the one more likely
chosen by most students at the high school or
undergraduate level is to go to the secondary sources. In
this instance, we have a number of works from which to
choose, for example: Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime
of Galileo (1955); Pietro Redondi, Galileo Heretic
(1987); Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His
Scientific Biography (1978).
Notice that this list of secondary
sources pertain to Galileo in general and not
specifically to his ideas on the motion of the earth. The
secondary sources offer a broader appreciation of the
topic. They are an example of "doing history,"
writing history. When students write about this secondary
literature, they are entering into the discourse of
history by the simple fact that they are now adding their
This is fine, but why write history?
After all, you plan to become a doctor, or a professor of
economics, or a cabinetmaker or a webmaster. What good
does it do you to know how to write history? Why must you
Writing history will help you
learn history. We have already discussed the
importance of becoming actively engaged in the
subject of history. What better way to do so than
to actually do it? In other words, writing about
history means a personal involvement with history
and this will necessarily produce a greater
understanding of history, a good thing in itself!
Writing history will force you to
understand history to a much greater degree.
Listening to a lecture, or viewing a film, or
reading a monograph, or taking part in a class
discussion is one thing. But writing about this
"experience" will demonstrate your
general understanding of history. As you write,
you demonstrate evidence. You produce a logical
argument. However, there are also times when
writing allows you to express your confusion
regarding a particular idea, event or thing.
Writing allows to you to bring that confusion to
the surface and hopefully, you'll be able to
answer your own question. At the very least,
you'll be able to show that something needs to be
more fully explored.
Writing history gives you the
chance to render your opinion. Since the
interpretation of history is always subjective,
writing allows you to persuade the reader of your
argument. For instance, many historians have
interpreted the Thirty Years' War as an example
of what would later be called a world war and
therefore a modern war. There are other
historians who disagree. They say that the Thirty
Years' War is an example of a medieval war, or
even the last medieval war. This is where you
step in. Having read a variety of
interpretations, you are now prepared to voice
your own. You may agree or disagree, that much is
clear. But the real issue at stake here is that
now is the chance to submit your interpretation.
Writing history gets you in the
habit of synthesizing large quantities of
material. Evidence must be gathered and
prioritized. General thesis statements must be
fashioned from the evidence at hand. You begin to
learn about the general topic upon which you are
writing as well as several topics which appear on
the peripheries of your topic.
Lastly, writing history will help
you to better organize your thoughts, that goes
without saying. The historian must exhibit some
kind of logic or the analysis falls apart.
Studying history, thinking history, writing
history--in a word, doing history--is not easy.
No, it is difficult and requires much sustained
effort. Some people are not capable of that kind
of sustained effort.
Take charge of your efforts to do
history. Gain as much confidence as you can. Develop your
own historical perspective. Remember, the study of
history and the writing of history is not a passive
response to the historical past. No, it is much more than
that. History involves the active engagement of your life
with all life. The pastness of the past is the key to the
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