Strategies & Resources for Developing Historical Knowledge

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  • 0:01 Why Develop Historical…
  • 0:50 How to Be a Historian
  • 1:33 Where to Look
  • 3:23 What to Look For
  • 5:03 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught middle and high school history, and has a master's degree in Islamic law.

When you start making a conscious attempt to develop historical knowledge, it can often seem like too much, too fast. This lesson explains how to focus on gaining historical knowledge the right way, so that it is more like a closet than a list of names and dates.

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.

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