1. Introduction: students and theory
YOU MAY ASK why a section on thinking about History is on a web resource. After all, you have studied History for several years with sufficient success to wish to take your studies further, so why consider the theory of History now?
Consider this make-believe example. If you were asked to volunteer to make up numbers in an American football team but you had never played before, or even seen a game, and did not know the aims or procedures, you would not be an effective team member. Your movements in the game could well resemble those of a headless chicken. When you know the aims of the game, the rules, and the patterns and procedures of play, you will read the game better, both as a participant and as an observer, and be in the position to contribute to your teamís success and to your enjoyment.
While the extent of content of many History courses has decreased, the expectations of sophistication have remained the same or even risen. Although many courses can be navigated effectively without consideration of theory, students may be stimulated by the issues in this sector of the historical enterprise and the perspective acquired is reflected in student answers.
Reasons for thinking about History
So far, in your successful study of History, you have mostly used heavily synthesised accounts in textbooks or short student introductions, but as an advanced student you are closer to the research historian and over your years of study you may have the opportunity to use the writing of research historians: writing which is different from textbooks. An awareness of the historical enterprise will help you to use advanced texts and research historiansí work in academic journals or essay collection more effectively.
There are three further reasons why you should consider the theory of History. First, you will agree, that the content of History you studied, and your appreciation of History, have changed from when you were 9 or 15. Primary school History, with romance and heroism and great simplification was very different from advanced History with its detail, analysis, and political, social and economic focuses. Some understanding of the theory of History is a further development towards an even more sophisticated view of History. Second, as an advanced student closer to research historians, an awareness of the historical enterprise, its aims and procedures, and the difficulties of the historical discipline, will raise your understanding and appreciation of what you read. And, third, you are now more advanced members of an academic discipline but even at this stage, there is still little scope for you to add to the knowledge of History instead of reading and considering what others have added. An awareness of the theory of History, however, will give you an added perspective, encourage you to a deeper reflection on what you read and make you a more effective History student.
Students do not always find the theory of History easy
You will probably find these pages, especially Chapter 4, challenging. If you become bogged down with Chapter 4, Key Critical Questions, it is suggested you go on to the next chapter and return to it at a later time when you are more ready to tackle those themes.
A snapshot overview of the topic is presented here. Once you have gained a further appreciation of the historical enterprise, this part of the web resource will have served its purpose. If you are engaged by the issues in this short introduction to the theory of History, you will find further reading suggestions from the History and theory menu.
A note on the use of the words history and History. History with a capital first letter refers to accounts of the past, such as History books; the academic discipline, with its agreed procedures, of which teachers and students are a part, in which the past is studied; and the branch of the spectrum of knowledge, whether in education or publishing, where the focus is the past. History without a capital letter refers to the past itself: for example, the journey of Columbus westwards was an event in history.