A Historian’s Job (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.2)

As you might have guessed already, a historian has a very big job. You learned in our previous reading that a historian is someone whose job it is to preserve our heritage and help us remember and understand our past. That is what Herodotus, the first historian, did when he wrote his book. It is what historians still do today. You might also recall from our previous reading that remembering our past can help us make good choices about our future. You might be interested to know that many of our presidents were professional historians, including:

• Theodore Roosevelt
• Woodrow Wilson
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
• John F. Kennedy
• Richard Nixon
• George W. Bush
• Dwight D. Eisenhower

Even those presidents who were not historians were very interested in history. They knew that history contained information that would help them make important decisions about our country. Thomas Jefferson, for example, collected a huge library of books – more than 6000 of them! – and many of these books were about history.

A historian’s job is very important and every time you step into your history classroom you become a historian. We want to do this important job well. Future decisions can depend on what we say about the past. So how do we do it?

In order to be a historian, you have to be part-detective and part-storyteller. You have to be able to piece together clues in order to figure out what might have happened. Once you piece these clues together, you then have to be able to present your ideas about what happened in a way that makes sense and that other people will want to listen to. In other words, you have to be able to tell a good story.

The clues that a historian has to work with include things that archaeologists discover, such as pottery and art. Sometimes these archaeological discoveries are easy to understand. If we find a sword, for example, we can usually be pretty sure this was used as a weapon. Other objects we find, however, might be more difficult to understand. Imagine being a historian in the year 3000. In your time people clean their teeth by using a laser they point into their mouths. Now imagine an archaeologist finds a house from 2014 and discovers a set of toothbrushes. It is your job to figure out what these were used for. You have never used a toothbrush before and do not know anyone who knows how to use it. This might be difficult. Some archaeological discoveries are like this.

A historian’s clues also include maps and the things other historians have written about our subject. The most important clues we use are the descriptions of events we read about in some very old books. You might have seen a detective show in which the detective interviews witnesses in order to find out what happened. A historian’s witnesses might be people who lived thousands of years ago, but we can still interview them! We interview them by reading the books they wrote in a very close and careful way. Sometimes witnesses misunderstand what they saw or even lie about it. We have to be able to compare different witnesses and use our thinking abilities to figure out who is telling the truth. When we do this, we are, in our own way, interrogating the witnesses, even if our witnesses are texts written by people who died a very long time ago.

There are three kinds of texts a historian uses and they are classified by how far they are from the original event we are studying. A primary source is a text that is very close to the original event. In order to be considered a primary source, a text has to have been written by either a witness or someone very close to a witness. For example, if you wrote about a Fourth of July parade you watched you would be writing a primary source. A secondary source is a text that is written by a historian about the primary sources. If a group of your friends went to the Fourth of July parade and each wrote about, then you took what your friends wrote and told your own version of what happened during the parade, you would be writing a secondary source. A tertiary source is what someone writes when they write about what the secondary sources say. Most dictionaries and encyclopedias are considered tertiary sources. They are just summaries of what historians say about something from history.

Bringing together all of the clues and the testimony of the witnesses can be quite a job. What do you do, for example, when there are only two witnesses and they disagree with each other about what happened? What if you find some archaeological evidence that shows that neither one of them is telling the truth? These are the sorts of problems historians have to solve. And this is just the first step in the job of a historian.

Once a historian puts the clues together he has to tell the story. In order to do this a historian has to be someone who writes very well. The ability to write well might be the most important quality of a historian. This means a historian has to have the ability to think and communicate clearly using correct spelling and grammar. A historian also has to make sure he is telling the truth and not just repeating gossip or telling tall tales.

As you can see, being a historian is a job that requires some hard work and a great deal of thought. Historians have to be able to play different roles, being a detective and then switching to become a storyteller, and they have to be able to fill both roles very well. This is the challenge we will take up over the course of your history class.

Review Questions

1. Given what you have already learned about history, why do you think learning about history has been so important to leaders such as the presidents named here?

2. In your own words, explain what primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are.

3. In your own words, explain why a historian has to be both a good detective and a good storyteller.

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