How does a historian think about the past?

Why Study HistoryAdapted from Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past:

The past is everywhere. Take some time to think about the many ways you have encountered the past today. Perhaps you shared a memory with a family member or looked at some old photos on Facebook. Or maybe you spent some time thinking about how the past has shaped who you are today. The past serves our needs in a variety of ways. We consume the past in hopes that it will inspire us, provide an escape from modern life, and tell us who we are as individuals and communities. We enter the past in search of people like us, and we invoke the past in our political and cultural debates. We cannot escape its presence in our lives. So why not embrace it? As we will see below, attempts at making the past relevant must be done with caution, but we should not be shy about linking the past to the present.

If you are a historian, part of your responsibility is to inform the general public about the way the past connects to our contemporary lives and to help the members of your community use the past to make meaning of their lives. As those living in the “here and now,” we are in constant dialogue with the past, whether we realize it or not. As long as we remain products of an American culture that celebrates the individual and his or her quest to bring order to life, we will live in a paradoxical relationship to what has come before us. The past will always serve as a temper to the progressive vision of a better world, but we will appeal to it endlessly in order to make that world a reality.

We must also always remember that the past is akin to a foreign country. Historians have the important task of visiting this world and explaining it to others through the books we write, the lectures we give, the lessons we plan, and the exhibits we curate. It is our responsibility to enter the past for the purpose of making sense of people, places, communities, and cultures that are different from our own.

Historians are tour guides. It is important to always keep this in mind as you engage the past. Your success as a historian or a student of history will depend on how effectively you are able to use your research paper, essay, or presentation to bring lost worlds to life for your readers and hearers. But this will not be easy since our natural inclination–our “psychological condition at rest”–is to consume the past for our own purposes to try to remake the past in our own images.

As an exercise in understanding, any serious study of the past requires us to attempt to humbly walk in the shoes of people who have inhabited this earth before us. This is why Stanford University history pedagogy expert Sam Wineburg has called the practice of historical thinking an “unnatural act.” It it this role of the historian–the role of a tour guide through foreign cultures–that has the best potential to transform our lives and the lives of those around us. It is our engagement with the otherness of these lost worlds that, ironically, prepares us well for life in the present.