What is history?

Different views

One view is that history is 'what happened' in the past and it cannot be retrieved, nor completely known or understood. A quite different view is that the past can be known and that history is in fact a record of the important things that happened. Between these extremes is a range of views of history – as an academic discipline, a popular pastime and even as a form of entertainment.

See What is history? (PDF, 130 KB)

Popularity

History enjoys great popularity in the wider community. People engage with history in different ways, for example by undertaking family or local history, visiting museums, monuments and heritage sites. Some collect stamps, coins, historical photographs, toys or clothing. Others are actively involved in historical associations and re-enactment societies. The prevalence of history websites, books, feature films and documentaries with historical settings are clear evidence of the popularity of history.

A large number of tourists is shown in front of the Pyramid of the Moon at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Large crowds in front of the Pyramid of the Moon at the ancient city of Teotihuacan, Mexico. Huge numbers of tourists are drawn to fascinating historic sites like this at locations all around the world.
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A family group dressed in medieval costume at a recent Lithgow Ironfest, an annual event where many historical re-enactors gather. Medieval re-enactors at a recent Lithgow Ironfest, an annual event where many historical re-enactors gather.
© 2013 Education Services Australia Ltd, except where indicated otherwise. You may copy, distribute and adapt this material free of charge for non-commercial educational purposes, provided you retain all copyright notices and acknowledgements.

 

An academic discipline

History is also an academic discipline studied in universities and an occupation practised by professional historians. For historians operating at this level, history is very much a process of investigation using particular methods and skills to find, analyse and interpret sources of evidence in order to offer an explanation or interpretation of the past.

See What do historians do? (PDF, 135 KB)

A process of inquiry

The Australian Curriculum: History takes a discipline-based view of history as a process of inquiry with its own methods and procedures, based on the analysis and interpretation of evidence. This emphasis on history as a process of inquiry is important, because it signals to teachers that students need to actively investigate the content outlined in the curriculum, not just 'learn' it.

An inquiry approach encourages students to pose questions and seek answers, to locate, analyse and interpret evidence, to discover and explain different perspectives and interpretations about the past and to develop and substantiate their own interpretations, based on evidence.

So, history is not simply a body of content to be transmitted to students, nor a set of concepts, methods and skills to be taught in isolation, but an approach that brings the two together. Students develop historical knowledge and understanding by applying historical concepts, methods and skills to their investigations of aspects of the past.

 

Resources