Tuesday, March 08, 2005

More history

Why study history at all? One reason is that it helps tell us where we came from, how we got here, and which direction we may be going, whether it's as individuals or as a society.
History is, above all, a story that is presented as being true. It's difficult and challenging to do, for several reasons. One is that we don't always have all the facts; some things were never recorded or written down. Another is that we can't include all the facts we do have. Some events are more significant and important. A history is always shaped by the purposes and intentions of the author. Some historians deliberately emphasize some facts in order to make a case; others, in spite of their best efforts to tell the truth, have unconscious or hidden biases that others can detect. Finally, a story that concentrates on "just the facts" don't always make a good, or interesting, or memorable, or meaningful story. There is an art to storytelling as well as the ability to judge and evaluate evidence.
Professional academic historians have a tendency to be experts in rather specialized areas of fact, which doesn't always result in historical writing that is accessible to the nonspecialist. Part of a broad education ought to include the ability to read and write history.
The difficulty in writing the human story is that we don't know either the beginning, because it was not written (or if it was, the oldest original records have been lost), and we do not know the end, because it hasn't happened yet. What we can do is tell shorter stories from the middle.
For organizing the raw material of history, it's useful to keep track of events in the order that they occurred. I tend to use arbitrary dates and approximately equal intervals of time to create a mental picture, in a fashion similar to how a topographic map suggests a picture of the landscape.
The major divisions I use are:
1) Prehistory (Before 3000 BC)
2) Antiquity (3000 - 500 BC)
3) Classical and medieval (500 BC - 1500 CE) (That's Common or Christian Era)
4) Modern history (1500 CE - Present)
5) Future

As an activity, I suggest picking a time and a place of interest, taking notes on about half a dozen of the most significant events as landmarks, arrange them in order, and then writing a story connecting those events.

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