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History vs. the Past

By Ruth Sandwell

In this introductory lesson, students learn to appreciate the importance of primary documents as they explore the six key differences between history and the past. Teachers can easily adapt this lesson for different age levels.

Introduction for Teachers

The past is not the same as history. The past involves everything that ever happened since the beginning of time -- every thought and action of each and every human being on the planet, every tree that fell in the forest, and every chemical transformation in this universe and others since the dawn of time. History, by contrast, is an interpretation, or rather a process by which people interpret records left over from the past. History is a process of interpreting evidence in a thoughtful and informed way. History is the narrative that gives meaning, sense and explanatory force to the past in the present.


Divide students into groups of two or three and ask them to discuss the following question:

What are the differences between “history” and “the past?”

Students are asked to list at least two differences. As students respond, their answers are listed on the board. Early in the discussion, students are asked to consider that while the past is every single thing that happened or was thought about or dreamt of -- every event, thought, belief, atom moving, tree falling in the forest while no one was there -- that history is, alternatively, someone’s attempt to bring order and meaning to that chaos of everything-ness. The first and most important difference between history and the past, as I tell my students if they do not come up with it, is:

a) Evidence, or a record, has to be created

Because students commonly resist the idea that history is not everything that ever happened, or everything that historians have already written about, and because it is almost impossible for them to understand history as a process of critical enquiry without this understanding, it is worth spending some time on the importance of evidence from the past. While historians tend to use written documents to understand the past, they are not limited to those kinds of records. No statement can be made about the past without evidence that has lasted through time, whether that evidence is written, pictorial, archaeological or spoken. We simply cannot know about it if there is no trace left over. If students are still in doubt, ask them to give you an example of any exceptions to this rule.

b) Evidence, or a record, has to be preserved

Not only does a record of an event, or thought, or belief have to be created, but it has to be preserved if people are going to know about it later. Ask students to consider what records they have already left behind that a historian, a hundred years from now, might use to understand them in his or her history of high-school students in the twenty-first century (see lesson #1). Students should note not only the narrowness of the records they are leaving behind, compared to the total of their lives, but also the fact that many of the records they are leaving -- like their school notes, and perhaps family photographs, or e-mails -- probably will not survive for a hundred years, or be in a place where a historian might find them. What view might a historian have of high schools if the only records that survive are the teachers’ assessments of them?

c) Significance

A record about the past usually only exists because of a decision, conscious or not, that someone has made about what is important. Who determines what records are created and what records are preserved? And then who determines -- and on what basis -- what historians might be interested in? The reasons why different kinds of records or evidence, like late slips, or counsellors’ files documenting aberrant behaviour, or student e-mails, or students’ notes, or personal diaries, are created and preserved (or not preserved) speak to very different ideas about what is significant about high-school life. Historians differ among themselves in terms of what is important when they come to write their histories. If a historian in the twenty-second century wanted to document a time of particular violence in society, for example, then he or she might be looking to the schools to find evidence that could provide examples of conflict. A historian interested in high schools as a community that prepared students for life might look instead for evidence that would document co-operation or academic success as a precursor to a successful career.

d) Interpretation

Urge the students to consider the possibility that the truth is really NOT out there. The past really is gone; it simply does not exist anymore. The best that people can do is to make reasonable evaluations of the available evidence, examined in the context of what other people have thought about the event or behaviour or belief. Even the first act of critical inquiry that defines historical research -- the decision about what to write about -- is an act of interpretation. Why write about high schools? Why not office workers, or prime ministers? The second act, that of selecting evidence about the topic, is also interpretive: why use principals’ records to try to understand high-school life in the twenty-first century? Why not student diaries? Or census records discussing the average family size of the student population? Or the gender and marital status of teachers? Each of those will give the historians of the future a slightly different interpretation of “what happened” in high schools in the twenty-first century.

Every decision about what to look at, and why, reflects the historian’s decision about what matters in society, past and present. One important note here -- in our experience, we find that most students at the secondary level still hold on to the belief that the only way that we can know about history is to read the eyewitness accounts of those who were there to experience events. They have little familiarity with reading primary sources “against the grain,” with finding more in a historical account than the author intended by reading the testimony for evidence. They also have little familiarity with the related idea that historians do more than simply list the facts delivered by these eyewitness accounts. As we will see in the next section, historians move beyond the testimony given by individuals, to interpret a broad range of documents within the context of meaningful questions that historians ask about the past. The question “What were the long-term consequences of the National Policy?” for example, cannot be answered simply by eyewitness accounts. It requires the interpretation of a broad range of evidence on a variety of topics, such as trade relations, standard of living and even, perhaps, morbidity rates.

e) Meaningful Narrative

In order to make a useful interpretive statement about the evidence from the past, historians need to incorporate their interpretations in a meaningful narrative, one that makes sense of the evidence they have examined in a number of contexts. Historians need to make sense, in other words, not only of other evidence from the past, but of what other historians have said about that evidence. They also often address the kinds of issues and questions in which people are interested in the present as well. The narrative, then, must demonstrate not only the reasonableness of the interpretation, but also its significance, past and present.

f) In Summary

To summarize, here are the five points that, by highlighting the contingent and constructed nature of history-as-process, can provide students with a useful introduction to the examination of primary documents:

  • a record must be created (if only a remembrance residing in someone’s memory);
  • the record has to be preserved over time;
  • the record has to be found by someone, and considered significant (i.e., at the time that it is found);
  • what is documented, preserved and considered significant has to be interpreted in the context of both primary and secondary sources; and
  • this evidence must be incorporated into a meaningful historical narrative.