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HOW TO BE A GOOD HISTORIAN

A Primer for High School Students and High School Students at Heart


INTRODUCTION
Most people think that history is a pretty boring subject. They just don't get why they should care about a bunch of dead people. People "don't get" history for a number of different reasons: boring or incompetent teachers, mind-numbing textbooks, maps and worksheets, endless litanies of names, dates, facts which never seem to add up to a whole story. Considering all these reasons, it's a wonder that anyone becomes an historian ...much less a teacher of history.
But you know better, or if you don't, you soon will. History is not just a random collection of facts in the past. It is a puzzle, one that requires a lot of time and care in putting together, but once complete, it reveals why people acted in the ways they did during their life journeys, and it provides a roadmap for you to follow as you embark on your own life journey. History is nothing less than a collection of lessons from the past which, if studied and learned, can help you avoid unnecessary mistakes in the future. The goal, then, of studying history is to help you live a better and happier life. To be sure, it isn't the key to all happiness in the world, but it gives you one heck of an advantage.

For you to be able to gain this advantage, you must learn not only the lessons of history, but how to develop the skills that will help you learn them. That this the purpose of this primer. In the following pages, we will examine what history is, what it isn't, why we should bother, and how to develop habits of successful historians. If you follow these steps, you will be equipped to succeed not only in history class, but in life itself. Ready? Let's make history!

STEP ONE: DEFINING BASIC TERMS
Identifying a common language is the first step to any learning process, whether it's learning math formulas or figuring out how to throw a curve ball. If you and your teacher don't speak the same language, it doesn't matter how brilliant you or your teacher are; you won't learn. Even if you both speak English, you must also understand the definitions of the words your teacher uses. These form the basis for the entire learning process. In learning history, you and your teacher must be in agreement about the following definitions.

Education: This seems like an obvious definition, but you'd be surprised by how many college graduates can't even define this simple word. It's not because they're dumb; it's because they never stopped to think about what all their learning really means. For our purposes, let's agree that "education" is the process by which a student develops knowledge of the information, skills, and lessons required for living a successful life. The key word here is DEVELOPS. It's an active verb, which means that the student is actually doing something, rather than waiting to have something done for him or her. A lot of people forget that an education is not something to be received, but something which must be earned. Remember that. Another \thing about "develops" is that it suggests a process. No student will get \everything right every time, and that's okay. But the student has to show improvement over time. You don't get educated; you become educated. Remember that too.

Educator: Many people misunderstand what a teacher is and what a teacher is supposed to do and that's often because there are a lot of bad teachers out there. That's why I prefer the term "educator." An educator is neither a babysitter nor a jail warden. An educator is neither a cruel dictator nor your best friend. An educator is not some circus freak obsessed with one subject and totally out of touch with reality, nor a pathetic person who failed at some first career. As long as you cling to these mistaken definitions, you will never be able to get the most out of what educators have to offer. Put simply, an educator is an individual who possesses outstanding knowledge of content, excellent communication skills, and unflagging dedication to helping a student succeed in earning his or her education. Never let any teacher of yours be less than this. You owe it to yourself.

Student: The meaning of this word should be obvious considering the two definitions above. But remember, a student is not someone who just shows up to class and sits at a desk. A student is an individual who recognizes the value of an education, realizes the need for active participation in the learning process, and makes a commitment to doing what it takes to acquire the knowledge, skills and lessons required to become educated. Young people who fail to measure up to this definition are often those who fail to graduate from school.

History: Now that we have the basics covered, let's examine what we mean by this word "history." History is the study of humanity, or more precisely, the pursuit of a meaningful understanding of past events , motivations, and experiences. to learn from mistakes and improve the human condition. A "meaningful understanding" means that you recognize how to apply what happened in the past to the decisions you face in the future. For example, you may or may not learn from your past mistakes, but one thing is certain: if you don't realize that you have made a mistake, you can never learn from it. That realization is what "a meaningful understanding" is.

Historian: This one is easy. An historian is an individual who studies, writes about, or teaches history, with the goal of helping people use past experiences to improve the present and future in terms of: living environment, decision-making, and overall happiness and satisfaction with life. No small task. And it requires a lot of very specialized skills, which you will learn about in the following sections.

STEP TWO: UNDERSTANDING WHY WE BOTHER
We've talked a little bit about this in the first section, but it needs to be discussed fully. The question which history educators hear most commonly is, "Why do we need to know this?" It's a fair question, and you are right to ask it. At times, some of the information you are asked to learn seems totally pointless. When you have moments like this (such as the Rush-Bagot Treaty, the Pequot War, or the Election of 1896), remind yourself of the definition of history. We do history because bother with this stuff because it helps present a more full picture of the world that people of past generations inhabited. And that is valuable because a good historian recognizes that the world of today was shaped directly or indirectly by every major event in the past; therefore, to understand how best to act in the present, one should study how those people did it in the past. You may be familiar with Santayana's famous quote, "Those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it." We study history so we don't forget the past or repeat it.

STEP THREE: A BRIEF HISTORY OF HISTORY
One of the most obvious and important things about history is often the most overlooked: You can't spell "history" without "story." For as long as people have been able to communicate, they have told each other stories. Some have been more interesting and useful than others; but almost all have had a beginning, middle, end, and some larger meaning. So the importance of storytelling in society cannot be overstated; it has always connected people to each other, and to the past.
The earliest stories were oral accounts between members of the same family or tribe. They would tell of the world they saw, and this helped others find food, shelter, or their place in the world. But still many questions remained unanswered, like "what is that bright thing up there in the sky?" and "what is this red stuff under my skin?" To answer these questions, storytellers would have to use their creativity. And so the first great myths were born. They had a beginning, middle, end, and a larger meaning. They weren't lies; they were just the best guess that storytellers could make. But no matter how good they were, the stories tended to die out, because stories not written down tend to get forgotten or radically changed over time.

When people learned to write, storytelling became a much more permanent fixture in society. So instead of having to relearn the answers to earlier questions every time a new storyteller came along, people could just look up in the sky, see the sun and say, "Oh that's Apollo riding his chariot of fire!" and then move on to newer better questions like "Why do seasons change?" and "What is love?" When the explanations to these new questions were written down, they formed the first great library: the Greek myths, the Roman myths, the stories of the Bible. Some of these stories held more truth than others, but all had a beginning, middle and end, and all sought to give meaning to human life. Is it any wonder that the first book of the Old Testament begins "In the beginning..."? It's a story!
As the centuries went by and we learned more and more about science and the world around us, the nature of storytelling split into two major categories: fiction and history. The chief difference between the two was the use of facts to give life meaning. Both told stories with beginnings, middles, and endings, but fiction writers taught lessons using invented situations and creative interpretation; history writers taught lessons using factual situations and scientific interpretation. The two disciplines have grown so far apart now that you take two separate courses, history and English, to learn them. That's probably why people think that creative writers are storytellers but historians are not. Although a John Grisham novel might be more exciting than your history textbook, you need to keep in mind your duty as you read: Look for the story in history!

STEP FOUR: LEARNING HABITS OF GOOD HISTORIANS
The key to becoming a good historian is developing good habits. The better your habits, the better an historian you will be. Here's how to do what's important.

ATTITUDE
The biggest obstacle to learning good habits is your own mind. If you've convinced yourself that a subject is worthless and a waste of time, you will never be able to develop the habits to make you successful. So, if you have not yet been convinced of the importance of studying history, then just imagine a world without history. No one would remember anything; people would make the same mistakes over and over; society would become incapable of functioning or improving. You see, history is what enables us to find meaning in life, without which we could not build a future. Lose history and you lose the future. So make sure your attitude isn't holding you back.

OBSERVATION
One of the first things you will notice about historians is that they are excellent observers. That means that they pay attention to what is happening, both in class and in the world. This information could come from books, television, or even lectures. Now, there's a lot out there for an historian to observe, so excellent historians have to be able to distinguish between important and unimportant information. Once an historian encounters important information, he or she must absorb the information. People tend to forget ideas or things they hear, and that's why good historians take note-taking very seriously. Think of taking notes as recording important information for future use. If you hear or see something in class that seems to be important information, write it down. Later, you'll be glad you did. Remember, the better your notes, the more use you will be able to get out of the information.

Some textbooks are better than others, but in general, textbooks are ideal sources for important information. If you read carefully, you will find a wealth of information that is worthy of taking notes. Tools such as writing assingments (and for AP students the infamous NORA) help you to organize the notes you take from the textbook, but all good historians use their powers of observation to take notes on important information contained in books. As with lecture notes, the better your notes, the more use you will be able to get out of the information.

RESEARCH
So you've read, you've listened, and you've taken good notes. But how do you know that you've learned enough about a subject. Well, a good way to determine this is to ask yourself "why did this happen and why should we care?" If you can answer these questions thoroughly, then you've probably done enough. Sometimes lectures or textbooks can provide you with everything you need, but often they don't. It doesn't mean that the book or the teacher is lying, but they aren't necessarily telling you the whole truth. To get the "whole truth," you must do research. Research is a personal process of discovery in which an historian investigate a subject, thoroughly learning why something happened and why it was important. So a good historian will begin with a question, then find all the sources that will help answer the question, take good notes, and develop a well-thought-out answer. More sources and better organization lead to outstanding research and excellent answers to these kind of questions.

STEP FIVE: BECOMING OUTSTANDING CLASSROOM HISTORIANS
You already have what it takes to use the habits of good historians to become outstanding "classroom historians." If you develop these skills and use them regularly, you will not only survive history but also thrive at it. Here's how to do it

ATTITUDE
As was mentioned above, a positive attitude is the very first thing you must develop. If you don't like history, then open your mind, and you'll be surprised by how useful the information you learn can be. If you already like history, then view each day as an opportunity to learn something new about how the world works, and how you can find your place in the world. In either case, come to class ready to learn, with energy and a positive attitude.

PRODUCTIVE TIME
While you are in class, spend all of your time observing and absorbing the important information. People only develop behavior problems when they forget the real reason they're in class. So don't be one of those people, and don't let anyone else disrupt your learning process.

HOMEWORK
You will get a lot of homework, and it can either be a chore or a challenge, depending on your attitude. To make your workload seem less like "work" and less like a "load," you should think of doing homework as getting additional classtime to learn important information, and demonstrate your knowledge.

PROJECTS
To succeed at projects, you should use the habits historians use for doing research. Start with a question, find all the sources you can, and come up with an excellent answer. For research papers, that's probably enough. But for group or individual projects, you should do all of the above and then try to think of the most creative and inventive way to answer the question. If you have no other fun in class, have fun with these projects.

QUIZZES AND TESTS
Lastly, you need to remember that historians record information not just to prove that they're observant but to be able to answer questions like "why did this event happen and why is it important?" Quizzes and tests are like this. Think of them as opportunities to demonstrate not only your observation skills but your ability to process information in order to answer important questions. The better your answers, the higher your score. It's as simple as that.

CONCLUSION: SOME ENCOURAGEMENT
All of this might seem like too much to absorb right now, but remember, you have a whole year to learn how to become good historians. And keep this in mind, there is no such thing as a perfect historian. We are all humans; we all make mistakes. But they key to success in history class is also the key to understanding the importance of history in the first place: learn from your mistakes and do it better next time. If you keep this in mind, you will slowly but surely develop the skills to become a good historian. In the meantime, keep this guide in a safe place and refer to it often. It will help you. Being a good historian can improve your grade, and it can improve your life. You can do it. Never doubt that. Let's get started.

 

 

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