School History - TOK - What is History?
The most important
justification for this section of the website is the belief
that TOK is very much at the heart of the IB programme. The principles of TOK: of self reflection and
critical analysis, the questioning of how we can know
anything – what philosophy calls
– are valuable in and for themselves.
Philosopher (loud and clear): Men cannot
really know the past. Historian (stupidly): What did you
say? Philosopher (irritably): I said, ‘Men
cannot really know the past’, and you know
damn well that’s what I said...
In this section of the website
we consider three, generally philosophical questions about the
nature of history. Firstly, I attempt to explain
what history is and
what it means to study history. In this it also helps to know
what history isn't and that, for example, history is not the
same thing as as the past. The second question concerns the
of how we can claim to know anything about the past. Doing
history involves working through a series of stages, each of
which presents difficulties for the historian. Finally, we
consider why history plays an
important role in the world today, helping us become
discerning users of the past.
As a busy history
student you are probably also interested in more quantifiable
outcomes of how TOK can make you a better history student who
gets better grades.
Obviously an interest in history TOK issues will help
you with your TOK presentation and essay. History is a
privileged ‘area of knowledge’ in that unlike most IB
subjects, history has its own section in the TOK
syllabus. Why history has its own section, whereas
Geography or Biology, for example, do not, is part of
what I want to address in this section of the website. In brief,
history is special with its own very unique set of
the study or a theory of the
nature and grounds of knowledge especially with
reference to what can and cannot be known
your TOK teacher you are a history specialist. You have been
studying history for a number of years and can therefore expect
special attention when the TOK class comes around to study
history as an ‘area of knowledge’. You can anticipate being
quizzed on the big epistemological questions of our subject: so,
what exactly is history? Or how can we know what happened in the
past? Or what is the point of studying history?
You can also
expect smug grins from your geographical friends if you give the
impression of never having considered these questions before.
But be reassured this is not your fault. It is a product of what
the great English social historian Raphael Samuel once described
as history’s ‘naive realism’.
As is illustrated by J.H. Hexter’s imaginary dialogue at the
head of this page, historians like to do history; they don’t
tend to think much about how they do it.
But other than your academic
street cred, what else can a serious approach to TOK history
provide? Put simply, it will make you a more thoughtful and
original history student. For example, the close (micro)
document analysis of Paper 1 will benefit from a broader
philosophical (macro) approach to
what makes sources
useful or reliable.
essay writing process of Papers 2 and 3 is enhanced with
an understanding of how history is written, where
interpretations come from and why historians might
disagree. And most obviously, the major research
assignments of Internal Assessment and Extended Essay
will score much more highly if there is evidence of an
original, self-reflective voice that is in control of
both the narrative and the
methodology behind the
assignment. The books I have listed at the end of this
chapter will help you do this.
study of methods that are, can be, or have been
applied within a discipline, in this case
This section of the website
therefore is not so concerned to provide you with a guide to the
history section of your TOK course, but rather to rather bring
the TOK knowledge issues into your study of history. It urges
you not just to do history but to think about it.