International School History - TOK - What history is and isn't

History is not the past.

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.

The past 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 symbols mean.

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.

Cartoon by Dan Piraro


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 David Lowenthal once argued that ‘history is both more and less than the past’. What do you think he might have meant by this?

History is made by historians.

An IB history student is 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.

Historian Not historian
Cliometrics is the systematic application of economic theory or mathematical methods to the study of history (especially, social and economic history)

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
Discuss the 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




 Being an historian involves familiarity with a challengingly wide range 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 interpretations.
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 window.

Prescribed Essay Title
To understand something you need to rely on your own experience and culture. Does this mean that it is impossible to have objective knowledge?

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.

Keith Jenkins – Re-Thinking History Routledge 1991

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.



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