So I asked my eleven year old, “What is History?”

As I begin the transition from summer to fall semesters (I know it is way too soon!), I decided to think about how I can start my methods course.  I have my own set of ‘willing’ lab rats at home and I cornered my sixth grader and asked the question in the title of this post.  The reply was what I expected… 

“The past.  What happened.   I don’t know.”

I can’t blame her, because a lot of history teachers out there teach to this model.  I share with you the past and you tell me on the test what happened.

There are some really good history teachers out there that let the students interpret what happened and learn about the past.  If you are among them, great job!  But a lot of non-AP history courses skip over a lot of the explanations of what history is or fully grasping the significance of the discipline.  Thus I offer you some simple ideas to get kids of all ages to understand what history is and how it works.

1.  Go straight to Hegel!

G.W.F. Hegel was a philosopher who worked on understanding the epistemology of history.  By understanding the way ideas are generated in history, he was able to put into thought the process by which history works.  By illustrating this on the board with a simple diagram, you can explain the process of history, especially with a few case study examples.

The original idea is presented by a historian:  the thesis

Other historians present counter arguments, explanations, and ideas:  the antithesis

Eventually the historical community works through all the ideas and presents a consensus explanation of the facts:  the synthesis

Example:  The Confederacy in the American Civil War

1890s Thesis:  The Lost Cause granting Lee mythic status and placing blame on his subordinates—Stuart, Longstreet, and others

1960s Antithesis:  A reconsideration of the performance of Lee and those who were blamed for hindering Lee’s performance.

Current Synthesis:  The North developed into a powerful foe while Lee developed as good of an army possible with talented and capable subordinates.

2.  It’s all about the lens you approach it with.

This one is a bit more entertaining.  For this I would with the simple instruction on the board to observe what you see and you will be asked to describe what you think happened.  When the bell rings, I would enter the classroom doing something that could only be described as a mutated chicken dance at the third day of Woodstock.  After about 40 seconds of gyrations, I would exit the room.

Upon my return I immediately ask for descriptions of what occurred.  The typical responses involve a person acting “crazed” or a psychotic chicken.  I then ask them if it is possible for it to be a dance of a primitive culture.  With that the kids’ jaws drop to the floor and say “no way.”  I tell them this is a lesson.  We cannot jump to quick conclusions, we have to look at context, the setting, and gather as much information as we can.  It is possible for looking at something from a different perspective.  For instance, how did the day in 1492 look for those on the island rather than the boat?

3.  What do the historians say about the field?

Oddly enough, most historians find the discussion of how the field of history works to be boring, pedantic, and trivial.  For them the chase of history and uncovering interpretations is the more important aspect of their jobs.  For those historians that do explore the epistemological aspects of the field, it is important to understand where history has come from in the past forty years.  While there isn’t space to explore it here, let’s just say history now appreciates the multiple perspectives that all parties to the historical event may hold as well as how current historians and individuals see the phenomenon being studied.

Prior to this recent period, it was believed that there was but AN objective truth for any event and it was a matter of uncovering what that truth was.  Thus, many of the great historians of the early 20th century were looking for but the one truth.  This does not diminish their historical research, it was simply the philosophical paradigm that history had evolved to.  With this in mind, it may be necessary to find the context of certain quotes used in this activity.  My goal in this is to find heavy duty powerful quotes to drive student discussion as to what history actually is.

Some quotes to use can come from some of the various websites below:

Finally, if the content of the third idea is of interest to you, might I recommend a very interesting (and meaty) book by Peter Novick entitled That Noble Truth which explores the arc of historical inquiry in America in the past 140 years.

If you have other ideas or questions, please feel free to comment below.

Best wishes,


About bradburenheide

I'm an Associate Professor at Kansas State University's College of Education. Currently I am the program coordinator for secondary social studies education. My research interests include instructional gaming, history education, and creative pedagogy.

Leave a Reply