Introduction: How Do We Decide What to Believe?

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.