What is History?

Learning Objectives

  • Recognize history as an interpretive account of the human past—one that historians create in the present from surviving evidence

History (from Greek ἱστορίαhistoria, meaning “inquiry; knowledge acquired by investigation”) is the study of the past. History as an academic discipline studies and creates narratives to describe, examine, question, and analyze a sequence of past events, and investigate the patterns of cause and effect that are related to them. Historians often debate which narrative best explains an event, as well as the significance of different causes and effects. In history class, our objective is to learn to think like historians—by describing, examining, questioning, and investigating the stories from the past and looking for patterns and connections between them.

Watch It

Watch this video from renowned historian and author David McCullough as he answers the question, “Why is history important?”

You can view the transcript for “David McCullough | Why History?” here (opens in new window).

Try It

Many students think of history as an exercise in learning and memorizing names, dates, and facts— but in reality, history is not built upon facts, but rather upon the interpretation of events. Consider an event you attended recently—maybe a concert, sporting event, or a party. Now imagine that all of the attendees were asked to write about their experience at the event. Do you think your story about it would match the others who were there? Whose account would be the most accurate? All of the stories can still be “right” and factual, but they will certainly differ in the way they are told. All events that are remembered and preserved in some authentic form constitute the historical record. The goal of historical discourse is to identify the sources which can most usefully contribute to the production of accurate accounts of the past. Part of the historian’s role is to skillfully and objectively utilize the vast amount of sources from the past, most often found in the archives. The process of creating a narrative inevitably leaves some gaps as historians remember or emphasize different events of the past.

Some students struggle with this concept in history class and like to search for the “right answer” when asked to write an essay or reflect on a concept. In reality, there are very few right answers in history, but any answer that makes a claim and then supports the argument with evidence is credible. Even this very text that you are reading may make generalizations or claims about history that can be refuted! It’s possible that you took a history class in the past where you were told about things that happened and then asked to memorize them. Knowing things like names and dates can be helpful, but that is just a small part of understanding history in a more complex interpretive context.[1]

Try It

You don’t have to be a professional historian to think like one, and you can start by questioning the world around you. If history is a narrative, who is telling the story? Whose voices are left out of the story? What other insights would help to make the story more complete?

What’s Missing in History Class

If the work of historians is to make sense of past events, they must rely on accounts of past events to do that. The problem is that lots of things are not written down or preserved, so our information about those events is limited or even non-existent. We don’t have access to the majority of history, particularly the accounts that come from oral histories, the poor, the enslaved, or the stories not told by the majority voices.

Consider your own life. What if someone were to find your backpack or purse with your laptop or phone inside. They could look at all of the artifacts inside of your bag to try to learn about you as a person—what kinds of things are you interested in? Maybe they’d find your latest concert ticket, your souvenir keychain, a few receipts, or evidence of the classes you are taking. They may be able to guess about your identity and your interests, but they would not know the complete you. In this same way, we are left to interpret history through the few artifacts we have. These stories may be incomplete or evolve as we uncover more information.

Watch It

Historical thinking involves the thinking, reading, and writing involved with telling and making sense of the stories from the past. To think like a historian, it’s necessary to consider multiple accounts and perspectives, analyze primary sources, consider the context of an event or source, and construct historical arguments based on evidence. Watch the first few minutes of this video (stop at 2:32) to learn about the importance of consulting a variety of sources and accounts when learning about the past.

You can view the transcript for “What is Historical Thinking” here (opens in new window).


As we learned above, history involves interpreting the past, and there is no one right interpretation. Think about a historical event that you’ve heard of, but don’t know that much about. What questions could you ask to learn about it?

For example, in this module, we learned about the Aztecs and their encounters with Cortés and his men (including the murder of the leader, Montezuma, the conquest of Tenochtitlán, and the role of Malintzin). Based on what you’ve read so far, what questions do you have that would help you know more of the details about the interaction between the Spanish and the Aztec?

  1. Middendorf, Joan & Pace, David. (2007, February). Making Thinking Explicit: A History Department Decodes Its Discipline. National Teaching and Learning Forum, Vol. 16, No. 2.