The Dynamism of History

“Apart from their intrinsic interest, what lies behind our concern with these instances of historical process is the much bigger question of how we got from ‘then’ to ‘now’…There may be a gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them’, but that gulf is actually composed of processes of growth, decay and change which it is the business of historians to uncover (Tosh, 12).”

Much like our readings for this week, the study and definition of history varies greatly from text to text. However, what the readings, as well as all other texts, artifacts, and other components of history have in common is that each plays a part in piecing together the ongoing and dynamic narrative that is history. Each of the readings touched on this theme in various ways.

Iggers, in his Historiography in the Twentieth Century—though dense and dry in delivery—was concerned with the changes that have occurred in the thinking and practice of historians over time. He argued that during the 20th century, reorientations of thought led to a more social-scientific approach to researching and analyzing history, as apposed to the narrative, event-oriented history that was previously employed. Ergo, history became a “practice”, more intentional and professionalized (pp. 3-4). By giving examples of the theories and arguments that prompted this change, Iggers demonstrates the dynamism of the approach to studying history.

By contrast, in his “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” Novak offers a case study of the perception of the “American State” as it has been interpreted and has changed over time. He maintains that the “American present is at odds with representations of the American past” because, historically, America has been portrayed as having had a weak state. However, recent attempts made to connect the modern, powerful American state to its previous model has left researchers floundering—how did American get to “here” from “there”? Novak’s example suggests the dynamism of both a country over time as well as how the understanding of an entity changes over time.

Ward’s somewhat satirical textbook excerpts not only added a bit of pitying humor to the workload, but also provided an excellent example of the dynamism of how history has been taught. By likening textbook articles on Columbus and Witchcraft as they were written and rewritten over the course of nearly two centuries, Ward illustrates changes in the proposed causations and accounts of the events through time, as new discoveries or explanations arose. For instance, the causations given for the existence of witchcraft in the colonies were: 1823: physical illness, 1855: theological reasoning/contract with the devil, 1866: delusion/the barrenness of life, 1936: superstition, 1982: socioeconomic issues (64-69). This provides but one example of how history was reinterpreted and retaught and time passed.

Finally, in The Pursuit of History, Tosh gives a name to the dynamism of both history as a discipline and the way it is understood and taught—process (11). He points to process as the third fundamental aspect of historical awareness, understood more simply as, “change over time” (19). This concept, when applied, provides an explanation for why it is so difficult to accurately define “history”, and why historians are forever changing their methods to understand, teach, and write it. Process is the parallel between the events, people, progressions, digressions, which comprise history.

The largest take-away I got from this week’s readings was the paradox of the dynamism of history: “just as nothing has remained the same in the past, so too our world is the product of history” (Tosh, 12). Though understanding history as ever-changing has aided in the evolution of the discipline and “righting” some of the “wrongs” that have been recorded in scholarship, historians cannot ignore the continuities that remain or have contributed to how things exist, modern-day. This concept has greatly complicated the way I look at history from any perspective, and challenges me to be fully aware of the dynamism of history in future readings, studies, and writings.

2 thoughts on “The Dynamism of History”

  1. The “definition of history varies greatly from text to text.” I always so desperately hope someone comes up with ONE definition of history. Seriously, I’m *that* historian, and I’m not ashamed of it. After teaching for a short while, it was very hard to attempt to explain to my students – let alone grown adults – that history isn’t just one facet, like dates or people, but an amazing compilation of ideas, theories, and revelations, like a science. And…I totally lost them almost every time it came up. However, that said – I agree with you that this week’s readings forced me to really look at how we “do” what we “do,” and embrace the dynamism of our field. The more I get comfortable with the abstract parts of history, the more I’m starting to come around to being ok with a flexible definition of history. As I explored the readings this week, I began to realize how truly wonderful that flexibility and evolution really is, although I think it will take me a while to fully adopt it.

  2. I agree with you, Kate and Carmen, that the indefinable nature of “history” can be frustrating, but its interdisciplinary nature is also what makes it so great!

    Concerning the Novak reading–I would argue that his purpose wasn’t so much to show how revisionist history has adapted the history of the American state, but rather to show that the current belief that American statehood exists in a more free form than that of other nations is downright incorrect. This is the direct result of the historiography of American statehood, and shows just how powerful historiography can be.

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