The Art of Reconstructing the Past – an Excerpt from Why Study History?

The following is an excerpt from the first chapter of Why Study History, by John Fea.

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Cover Art[A]s the chronological distance from a particular moment in the past grows greater, our memory starts to fail us. Sometimes the documentary or oral evidence that tells us what happened in the past is limited or untrustworthy. Whatever the case, the past is gone. Yet we would be foolish to suggest that it has not had its way with us—shaping us, haunting us, defining us, motivating us, empowering us. Enter the historian.

History is a discipline. It is the art of reconstructing the past. As historian John Tosh writes, “All the resources of scholarship and all the historian’s powers of imagination must be harnessed to the task of bringing the past to life—or resurrecting it.” The past is messy, but historians make sense of the mess by collecting evidence, making meaning of it, and marshaling it into some kind of discernible pattern.

History is an exciting act of interpretation—taking the facts of the past and weaving them into a compelling narrative. The historian works closely with the stuff that has been left behind—documents, oral testimony, objects—to make the past come alive. As John Arnold has noted, “The sources do not ‘speak for themselves’ and never have done [so]. . . . They come alive when the historian reanimates them. And although the sources are a beginning, the historian is present before or after, using skills and making choices. Why this document and not another? Why these charters and not those?” There is a major difference between a work of history and a book of quotations.

©2013 by John Fea. Published by Baker Academic. Unauthorized use of this material without express written permission is strictly prohibited.

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