Overview of History Discipline

 

Throughout the world, studying history is an essential element of a good liberal arts education. Knowledge of history is indispensable to understanding who we are and where we fit in the world.

 

As a discipline, history is the study of the past. In other words, historians study and interpret the past. In order to do this, they must find evidence about the past, ask questions of that evidence, and come up with explanations that make sense of what the evidence says about the peoples, events, places, and time periods under consideration. Because it is impossible for a single historian to study the history of all peoples, events, places, and time periods, historians develop specialties within the discipline. Historians may study the history of particular groups of people (e.g. women's history or African-American history), they may study particular events (e.g. history of the Vietnam War or the Crusades), they may study the history of a single country or region (e.g. Pacific Northwest history or Chinese history), or they may confine their interest to a limited time period (e.g. early American history or Medieval history).

 

In addition to limiting the scope of their historical study, historians also take different approaches to their inquiries. For example, they may decide to look at the cultural or social relationships between the people they are studying, at the intellectual or religious debates within a particular society or group, at the political or economic history of a country or region, or at the history of the environment or science and technology during a pivotal time frame. Because different historians take different approaches to their research and writing, and because individual historians bring different perspectives and different questions to their work, historical interpretations are constantly changing and evolving.

 

The study of history is therefore dynamic and forever new. Far from being the study of facts and dates, understanding history means understanding how to read and interpret the past. It is through reading and interpreting our various pasts that we can know and understand the present and the future.

 

For more information on the study of history, see the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.