Posted July 6, 2021
How History is More Than “The Facts”
“History is a set of facts! You can’t change the facts!”
Every social studies teacher has heard the above at some point in their career. Often it is from an angry parent or a confused principal wondering why what is being taught in the classroom today is different from what they learned as a kid. History is concrete, we assume. It doesn’t change, so therefore what social studies teaches shouldn’t change. Right?
Of course, social studies teachers know this isn’t the case. History is more than just a set of facts; it also includes the interpretation of facts. We call this “historiography:” the study of studying history. Even if you don’t know the word, you do this all the time! Historians are like storytellers. Like every storyteller, they have a set of facts that don’t change, but how they tell the story can change. A storyteller can decide where to begin the story, and where to end it. They can emphasize different characters or different events. Although the facts don’t change, the story can sound very different depending on the storyteller.
In history, we often find that our interpretations are not as perfect as we’d like them to be. Sometimes new information changes the way we think about an event. Other times, questions come up that an interpretation can’t answer. Over time, the way we think about history changes.
You can try this with yourself and with your kids! Check out our “Interpreting History” lesson, which includes two different excerpts from historians on the same topic: the American frontier. Each one is a different interpretation on the importance of the frontier in American history. The first excerpt is by Frederick Jackson Turner, a famous frontier historian who coined the “frontier thesis” in 1893 to argue that the frontier is what formed American democracy. His thesis was the basis for most American West history through the 20th century.
However, later historians found many holes in Turner’s argument. The second excerpt is by Patricia Nelson Limerick, one of the historians who criticized his thesis. Read the two excerpts and write a journal on the following questions:
- What is Turner’s thesis?
- What evidence does Turner give to support his argument?
- Do you agree with Turner that studying the American frontier is “to study the really American part of our history?”
- What are three of Limerick’s criticisms she gives to Turner’s thesis?
- What parts of American history does Limerick believe that Turner ignored in his thesis?
- Do you agree with Limerick that the American West is a place, not a “process?”
- Which historian do you agree with the most: Turner or Limerick? Why?
- How might your opinion on American history change if you think of the frontier as a “process” versus a “place?”
- Why do you think it’s important for historians to consider how they tell history, rather than just what they tell?
Blog post image citation: Brilliant High School science class photograph. Stillimage. Brilliant, OH: ca. 1930-1943. Ohio Federal Writers Project. https://ohiomemory.org/digital/collection/p267401coll34/id/8103. (Accessed June 30, 2021)