What is History?

The Fall 2011 semester at Mansfield University began on Monday, August 29.  On Tuesday, my First Year Seminar course “Pathways to the Past” met for the first time.  It included the usual first day of class activities–introducing me as the instructor, verifying the attendance roster, reviewing the syllabus–but I also engaged the students in two activities.  First, I asked the students to write down their class schedules, mainly to get an idea of what other classes they are taking.  After all, the course is about history, and their class schedule is part of their educational history at MU.  Fortunately, only one student did not know which classes she was taking (but she did know when and where they met).  The second question related to the title of this blog.

Before discussing what I talked about in the last blog (Why Study History?), I distributed 3 x 5 index cards to the students and asked them to define history.  Twenty-two of the twenty-eight students provided definitions or descriptions that included the word “past”–which, given the common perception that history relates to the past, is understandable (those who did not specifically include the word “past” did indicate that history is before the present time).  A random selection of 1/3 of the student responses reflects the disparity of definitions.

Two notes:  (1) For the random sample, I collected the cards, shuffled them, laid them face down, and pulled out every third card.  (2) Students are identified by major to protect their anonymity yet reflect their academic interest/major.  All of the students identified as “Liberal Studies” are pursuing the Associate of Arts degree; the rest are seeking Bachelor’s degrees.

(History):  A true or semi true story of things that happened in the past (semi true because who can ever 100% know what really happened).

(Liberal Studies): History is a number of current events that happen in the past if it wasn’t for history there wouldn’t be a future.

(Liberal Studies): History is all the things that happened in the past that define who and what all of us have become.  As a society we are all part of history.  Even down to what happened yesterday, is a part of history today.

(History): I believe that history is everything from people to events that have been documented or retold orally since humans started speaking that tell details that lead up to today.

(Liberal Studies): History is a series of events that were significant enough to be taught and discussed in the present day.

(Liberal Studies): History is having knowledge about the past.  Depending on knowledge events or people that has help change the world as we know it today.

(Undeclared): History is a way of learning the future by studying events of the past; without history there can be no present or future.

(History): History is something that allows us, in the present, to study and learn about people, places, things, and events that happened in the past.  By studying history, we can learn from mistakes made by people in the past and change things that did not quite work for someone in the past.

(Math): Events that happened before the present, but after the extinction of the dinosaurs.

The next adventure for this class:  learning how to take lecture notes in a college history class.  In other words, I will get to see what they hear–and what they write down–when I present a brief lecture on Sports and Popular Culture.


About Karen

History Professor. Baseball fan. Author of two books, one of which I force my students to buy and read. You want me on your Trivial Pursuit team.
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2 Responses to What is History?

  1. Jeannie says:

    And what is YOUR definition?

  2. Karen says:

    You’re putting me on the spot–I like to go with the one I learned the first day of class, August 1977: “a record of man’s past.” The prof went on to discuss different ways we know about the past, whether it’s written, oral, pictorial (like cave paintings), or audio-visual (like movies).

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