What is History?

Edward Hallett Carr in his composition “What is History?,” seeks to underscore a set of key crucial points relating to how the work of chronicling, cataloguing, and considering history is done.  From facts to philosophy; from society to the individual; to what is our proper role in this endeavor. 

First of all, because history is a social science, and not an exact one, it is necessary to take painstaking care that we carefully collect all relevant data and materials and consider carefully their substance and credibility.  Above all else, facts have to come first!  If the facts do not support the theory you have postulated then you must be flexible enough in your personality, or mindset rather, to completely, if necessary, rethink your initial considerations.  Facts serve as an anchor to hold the us in place.  They help not only to give credence to serve our arguments, but rather they also prevent us from making the kind of broad sweeping generalizations that ordinary everyday people have the luxury of making as a consequential aspect of daily life.  

Our commitment, ultimately, is to a higher objective.  This is why as I have often said sentimentality and nostalgia are the twin enemies of our intended purpose.  Those are the two reasons why as one goes through life, particularly in America, though not exclusively, there are two versions of our shared national narrative:  There are the stories that make America.  And the stories that America makes up!  Sometimes carrying Americans along for the ride with them.  Fictions may be more fun than facts, because they are of course more flexible, but ultimately they are not true!  This of course speaks to the difficult challenge that we face with historical events and figures that are popularly perceived as larger than life or for whom their legacy is wrapped and shrouded in myth and legend.  Case in point: General George Armstrong Custer killed at The Battle of The Little Big Horn in 1876.  Was he a heroic figure who died in a blaze of glory?  Or, was he an egotisitical renegade whose reckless actions led to an unnecessary loss of life?  Personally, the way I see it, historically speaking, I would say the truth falls somewhere in the middle.  What exactly that truth is, that is the shade of gray.  We may never know precisely what happened!


Carr wrote, “The function of the historian is neither to love the past nor to emancipate himself from the past, but to master and understand it as the key to the understanding of the present.”  Well he was right…and wrong!  While it is true that in order to understand our present moment we must have a reasonable grasp of the past; it is not true that we must not emancipate ourselves from it to a degree.  If we become to entrenched in what happened 100 to 150 years ago we run the risk of impeding our ability to move forward and make the most of what our present moment has to offer in the way of living, applying, our lives with a deeper more meaningful value.  That’s how life is: it happens in moments!  The process of this work is a human drama of the most intense kind.  So much so in fact that this will certainly break your heart more times than you can count.  This will break you heart more than it will make your spirit soar.  The question you have to ask is are you willing to put yourself through that…time after time?  Over and over?  Again and again?  Only you can answer that!

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