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Introduction: How Do We Decide What to Believe?

In this lesson, you are going to learn about some of the reasons people study history, and give thought to what you hope to gain from studying it. You will also be learning some of the skills necessary for studying history. The skills you learn in this lesson will be useful to you throughout the course (and throughout life).

Open School BC

Site: Individual Learning Centre
Course: SS11 (20th Century World History) 2018
Book: Introduction: How Do We Decide What to Believe?
Printed by: Guest user
Date: Sunday, 17 October 2021, 2:05 AM

Intro Unit - What to Believe?

In this unit you are going to learn about some of the reasons people study history, and give thought to what you hope to gain from studying it. You will also be learning some of the skills necessary for studying history. The skills you learn in this lesson will be useful to you throughout the course (and throughout life).

What Is History?

You could say, quite simply, that history is the record of the human past. But there is more to it than this. Traditionally, students of history have studied nations, national leaders, and wars. Indeed, much of this course deals with these three factors.

“Facts are sacred, opinions are free” has been a motto for some historians. But how do we decide which facts are significant? For example, in 1927, an American named Charles Lindbergh flew from Long Island, New York, to Paris, France, nonstop. He was not the first to fly across the Atlantic: two Englishmen, Alcock and Brown, had done it some years earlier. But Lindbergh was the first to fly across the Atlantic alone, and his flight was much further than Alcock and Brown’s.

Lindbergh’s flight is a “fact of history.” Many histories of the twentieth century mention the flight. But if you were to fly to Paris this summer, this would not be a “fact of history,” but would merely be a fact of your personal life.

History, then, is a series of facts about the human past that historians agree are significant—and that is the way these facts are understood and interpreted. What is a “fact of history” changes over time. Increasingly, however, the subject matter of history is changing. Women, blacks, First Nations people all feel that their story has been largely ignored by historians. As a result of these concerns, the subject matter of history is changing. Today people study the history of the family, the history of technology, and even the history of rats and lice!

Just as the “facts of history” change, so the interpretation of those facts changes. During World War I, people looked at the “facts” and decided they meant that World War I was being fought to preserve freedom. Few would so interpret it today.

In the video below, British historian Greg Jenner explores the question "What is History?" Before watching this, ponder this question for a minute. Who gets to decide what is historically significant? How do they do that? Once you have thought about it, kick back for a few minutes and enjoy the show.

Primary and Secondary Sources

It is quite important, when evaluating historical evidence, to distinguish between primary and secondary sources. A primary source, quite simply, is information that comes from someone who was actually there, who saw or heard what happened. It also can be the actual document that was drawn up, or letters written by people carrying out actions you are studying. Secondary sources are materials developed by people who weren’t there, but who have read the primary sources. Secondary sources can be more reliable than primary sources, as the primary source may come from someone who is unwilling to tell the truth. Primary sources often have to be interpreted by scholars before they make sense. Certainly primary sources are more valuable as evidence, but they may be less valuable as a guide to truth. Consider the article on pre-revolutionary Chinese soldiers below. Would it be a primary or secondary source?

RESOURCE

The authors of the book where this is published, of course, didn’t see the soldiers shooting at the peasants, so the book is certainly a secondary source. What about Agnes Smedley’s writing? She didn’t see the soldiers either, but simply reported what her friends had told her. So she also is a secondary source. If her friends had written about what they saw, that document would have been a primary source.

Copyright 2004, Open School BC

Guided Practice

Instructions

For each of the following, state whether it is a primary source or a secondary source.
 
  1.  The diary of a World War I soldier, describing living conditions in the trenches

  1.  A reference to that diary in a textbook

  1.  A newspaper account of a military rising in Central Asia, written by a journalist who was on vacation there when it happened

  1.  A photograph of fighting during the rising mentioned above

  1.  The caption under the photograph, written by the newspaper editor

  1.  Sheet music of World War I soldiers songs, such as a Long Way to Tipperary, dated 1917

  1.  A recording made using this sheet music

  1.  A report on a famine in Africa made by a United Nations official who toured the famine area

  1.  An original copy of the Treaty of Versailles (which ended World War I)

  1.  Notes, taken after the treaty had been negotiated, by Colonel House (the aide to the American president)

Copyright 2004, Open School BC