Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.
Why Develop Historical Knowledge?
Look at the word 'history.' Now knock off those two first letters and what are you left with? That's right, 'story.' History is nothing more than a story, but not just any story, it is the story. It could be the story of a city, a group, a nation, or the whole world, but at the end of the day, history is a story.
Like any good story, history teaches us a lesson. It's trite, but you've surely heard the saying, 'those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it?' It's true, and through the study of history, we see that over and over again. As a result, studying history is one of the more useful things that an individual can do. So, does that necessarily mean that we should all begin memorizing dates and names? Far from it.
How to Be a Historian
In fact, you'll find as you continue to study history that dates, places, and names are, frankly, not where the story is. Take this one, for example. If I just said 'Yorktown, Virginia; 1781; George Washington,' you would be left without a story of any kind. Sure, you might remember that Washington won the Battle of Yorktown and that it helped start peace negotiations that ultimately led to the recognition of the United States. But to make it interesting, you had to tell the background information.
Think about it like this. Look at your closet. Hopefully, it's organized and neat, with everything neatly hanging on coat hangers. If it weren't for those coat hangers, everything would be a mess at the bottom of the closet. Names, dates, and places are just like that - they are coat hangers. They keep everything neat, but no one wants a closet full of nothing but coat hangers.
Where to Look
Instead, you want clothes. These are the various stories that make up history. Some are colorful and fun, others are sort of boring, but all are needed for a full wardrobe. Just like in our Yorktown story, hang stories off those hangers. So, you've got that hanger of 'Yorktown, Virginia; 1781; George Washington,' so attach the story of French assistance to the Americans. In fact, make a whole outfit of it by putting a belt and shoes nearby, like how Cornwallis, the British general in charge, was actually a really good general, while Washington was fairly mediocre in battle, but just this once, when it mattered most, Washington won.
Those stories can come in two major varieties, namely primary sources and secondary sources. Primary sources are those sources that actually witnessed an event. They can be biased and often don't show the whole picture, but they are much more interesting, as they show a real human side to the past. If you've ever worn a crazy tie with a suit, that tie is a primary source. It may not be appropriate all the time, but when it works, it makes everything look better.
The suit, on the other hand, is a secondary source. Secondary sources provide a much larger overview of the picture but did not actually witness the event. This means that they are often more applicable to more situations. A suit is a secondary source, as it is often rather boring but quite useful. However, the best secondary sources are supported by good primary sources, so think of these as the smartly-dressed businessperson with crazy socks or a colorful scarf.
What to Look For
In fact, you've probably got outfits you wear at about the same time of year that you like to keep in the same part of the closet. Chances are, you don't wear your parka at the same time of year as you wear your shorts and Hawaiian shirt, but maybe you wear your parka at the same time as you wear your favorite sweater. So, you've got related hangers close by. Not too far from that hanger with Yorktown, you could have one of 'Saratoga, NY; 1777; Horatio Gates.' That's because in 1777, at Saratoga, NY, American general Horatio Gates beat the British so badly that it convinced the French to join the war on the side of the Americans. The sweater may be Saratoga and the parka may be Yorktown, but the scarf you wear with both could be French assistance.
Obviously, this metaphor of a closet for historical knowledge could go on and on, but the point is that you should try to focus on stories and connections rather than names and dates. Few historians will ever be fired for thinking Saratoga happened in 1778 instead of 1777, but no historian was ever hired unless she could make those connections. Also, by building off of existing stories and not worrying so much about dates, you'll find that the dates paradoxically come more easily. If you tried to memorize Saratoga as 1777 and Yorktown as 1781, then there's only two numbers of difference. However, if you master the stories, you know that Saratoga absolutely must come before Yorktown, meaning that you can ace that part of any quiz or test.
In this lesson, we saw how developing historical knowledge was very similar to organizing a wardrobe within a closet. We saw how names, dates, and places were useful most of all as placeholders, not unlike coat hangers. Instead, as is true to the word 'history,' it is the stories of the past that make up much of what actually matters. Like assembling different outfits from various components, these stories all interlink to form both a full wardrobe and a full understanding of history. Meanwhile, where to put all those hangers of places, names, and dates starts to make much more sense when you focus on the stories and their causes and effects.
This lesson imparts the ability to:
- State the importance of studying history
- Compare primary and secondary sources
- Explain how to compose a historical story
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