Why write history? or, why do I have to write this history paper? The answer to that question comes from the historian Gerda Lerner³:
What we do about history matters. The often repeated saying that those who forget the lessons of history are doomed to repeat them has a lot of truth in it. But what are 'the lessons of history'? The very attempt at definition furnishes ground for new conflicts. History is not a recipe book; past events are never replicated in the present in quite the same way. Historical events are infinitely variable and their interpretations are a constantly shifting process. There are no certainties to be found in the past.
Lerner tells us that history, far from being a recitation of facts, a “recipe book” that will tell us what the previous generation did right and what they did wrong, is an interpretation of the past. While you may be able to recite facts in a multiple choice test, the only way for you to actually do history, to be a historian, to learn from the past, is to interpret the past—and that means writing about it. In other words, history is writing history. But before we can even think about writing about the past, about being historians ourselves, we need to ask a more basic question:
What is history? For an answer to that question, we turn to another historian, J.H. Hexter,³ who writes that history is a “patterned, coherent account of the human past intended to be true.” Notice that in this definition, history is like a story. The only difference is, rather than fiction, the story that history tells is “intended to be true.” Again, we learn that history is more than facts, more than dates. History is “a patterned, coherent account,” that interprets facts and dates in order to come to some conclusion about what history means, not simply in the past, but to us today.