History, the study of past events and their causes, is a way to understand why people do what they do. It allows us to make sense of the present world and offers reasonable predictions about future economic and cultural trends. History can also help us make sense of our own identities. We can look at how different cultures developed, and how they interacted with each other, to better understand our own lives and culture today.
The best historians are not only able to extract information and create narratives, but can make sense of the often contradictory evidence that is presented in the historical record. They can identify patterns and motifs, and make comparisons between the various sources. This is the same skill that an English class teaches, but it goes much further in history because of the added dimension of political and social change.
Human beings are complicated, and sometimes it’s difficult to understand why they do the things that they do. History can shed light on these mysteries, and it can also show us how consistent human behavior is, or how much it depends on context.
History is the only record of the full range of accommodations that individuals and societies have made to the problems they have faced, revealing the results of these accommodations. The historian’s job is to interpret the facts, separating them from the opinions and prejudices of the time in which they were written.
Historians are able to make sense of the tumultuous, sometimes contradictory and largely unknown evidence that is available. They can identify the thread of an argument, or the chronology of a series of events, and put these together to form a narrative. They can then test these conclusions, and make adjustments based on the new information that they receive.
It takes great skill to do this well, and a good historian does not shun depth, complexity or analysis. In fact, historians want to make their work as accessible as possible, but they do not wish to sacrifice accuracy or scholarship for this end. Some historians, however, seem to believe that they can produce an objective account of the past, without regard to human values, by a process of purely technical analysis. The historians who subscribe to this view of their craft tend to be viewed as intellectual and moral giants by the public.
It is important to remember that, unlike the sciences, history deals with human values and human judgments, which makes it much more subject to debate and disagreement. But, over time, historians can agree on many aspects of the historical record, and this knowledge forms a basis for high-quality textbooks and other works of synthesis. Occasionally, there are areas of continuing uncertainty, and even the best scholars may be guilty of making errors or omitting material. But this is no reason to discourage students from studying history, or to treat it as unworthy of their attention. Rather, it is a useful skill that will prepare them for self-government in a complex and changing society.