This semantic problem is not
helped by the fact that in English we tend to use the words ‘history’ and ‘the
past’ interchangeably. One of the most useful things you can do in studying
history is to begin to use the words to signify very different things.
is a term used to indicate all the events which occurred before
a given point in time: everything that has ever happened to
everyone, everywhere at any time before now. The past is neither
the present nor the future.
Semantics is the study of what words and
In contrast, history is a
narrative text, written in the present about the past, using
evidence that the past has left behind. This is important
because all history must just be an interpretation of the past
and never the ‘same thing’ as the past.
Student activity –
How does something from the past become history?
If asked about the difference between ‘history’
and the ‘past’ you would probably introduce the
concept of significance.If asked to choose an historical event
you will choose something historically important
or significant, for example, something that
impacted on the lives of lots of people or an
event that caused something else important to
happen. In contrast, if asked to choose an
example of something from the past you might
choose your last history lesson because it was
of no wider significance and will not make it
into the history books of the future.
In pairs or groups, invent a
scenario in which your next history lesson might
become an historical event. Compare your
scenario with the rest of the class; are there
any common themes in each of the scenarios?
The American geographer
Lowenthal once argued that ‘history is both more
and less than the past’.What do you think he might have meant by
History is made by historians.
An IB history
not an historian and neither am I. History is done by
historians generally working in a university history department.
Many people may do things that look similar and may have similar
qualifications – teach history, direct historical documentary
films, curate in museums – but these people generally are not
historians. This is important because although they may do many
useful things with the past – teach children, inform a wider
public, preserve documents – their primary purpose is not the
same as the historians. As a history teacher, my primary purpose
is prepare students for the IB history examination, this is not
what historians do.
Cliometrics is the systematic application of
economic theory or mathematical methods to the
study of history (especially, social and
History is both an art and a (social) science.
This partly explains history’s special position within the TOK
programme and a number of its epistemological problems.
Historians can use methodologies that resemble those of the most
quantitative social sciences – e.g. cliometricians’
computer processed analysis of census data. But they are just as
likely to use methods that require qualitative appreciation of
things that cannot begin to be measured - e.g. empathetic
sensitivity to long-gone attitudes and opinions.
Prescribed Essay Title
strengths and limitations of quantitative
and qualitative data in supporting knowledge
claims in the human sciences and at least
one other area of knowledge.
November 2009 - May 2010
an historian involves familiarity with a challengingly
of skills. This is important because historians may legitimately
engage with the past in any number of ways and this will result
in a very wide range of different types of history and
History is plural.
Rather than history we should really be talking about
histories. There are many possible interpretations to
any event and to any period of history.
As I look out of a window I may see a world that
reflects by world view as a history graduate. I see a
medieval church with Gothic spires alongside a post-war
town constructed from the ruins of WWII bombing. In
contrast the geographer may draw attention to river
basin or an urban pattern that corresponds to a
particular land-use model, whilst a biologist may be
more interested in the spiders on a web just outside the
Prescribed Essay Title
something you need to rely on your own
experience and culture. Does this mean that
it is impossible to have objective
November 2008 - May 2009
The past is like the view form the window and historians
may legitimately focus on any aspect of the view they wish. This
is important because although historians are theoretically free
to choose what they like, they tend to focus on similar things.
This introduces us to the question of the power behind history.
History tends to reflect what the state and its educational
institutions want it to reflect. Historical consensus about
history (especially national history) is neither natural nor
inevitable and therefore it needs to be created and defended.
Student activity –
The power behind history.
For although professional historians overwhelmingly
present themselves as academic and disinterested, and
although they are certainly in some ways ‘distanced’,
nevertheless, it is more illuminating to see such
practitioners as being not so much outside the
ideological fray but as occupying very dominant
positions within it; to see professional histories as
expressions of how dominant ideologies currently
articulate history ‘academically’. It seems rather
obvious that, seen in a wider cultural and ‘historical’
perspective, multi-million pound institutional
investments such as our national universities are
integral to the reproductions of the on-going social
formation and are at the forefront of cultural
guardianship (academic standards) and ideological
control; it would be somewhat careless if they were not.
George Orwell famously argued in 1984: ‘Who controls the
past controls the future: who controls the present
controls the past.’ In the light of Jenkins and Orwell,
list the reasons why history is a compulsory subject in
most schools around the world.