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University Writing Center
October 31, 2014

WRITING A HISTORY PAPER

“No harm's done to history by making it something someone would want to read.” David Mccullough¹

Why history? Perhaps the most familiar answer to that question comes from the philosopher, George Santayana, who wrote, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”² This practical reason for studying history may lead us to ask another, even more practical question:

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.

What is an historian? Simply put, anyone is a historian who is doing history. As we’ve already seen, doing history isn’t a simple thing at all. We might get a better idea of what a historian is if we look for a moment at the word history. The word comes to us from the Greek word, historía [inquiry]. In classical Greece, a historian was a hístôr [one who knows or sees]. So, a historian is someone who conducts inquiries into the past in order to know or see something important for the present. Sometimes historians conduct those inquiries by doing field work in northern Mexico or digging through archives in the Vatican. In every case, though, historians write about their inquiries. They share what they have learned and what it means. In fact, the term pre-history doesn’t refer to “cavemen times” as it is popularly thought, but the period before people started writing down their thoughts, ideas, and stories about what happened when they went off to fight against the Trojans. In other words, history and writing are so intimately connected that it’s hard to think about doing one without doing the other.  

¹ Mccullough, David. The Course of Human Events. (Lecture presented at the 32nd Jeffersonian Lecture in Humanities, Washington DC, USA, May 15, 2003).

²Santayana, George (1905) Reason in Common Sense. New York: Dover Press

³Lerner, Gerda. (1997) Why History Matters: Life and Thought. New York: Oxford University Press.  

³J. H. Hexter. (1971) The History Primer. New York: Basic Press

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