What Is History?

Those of us who love the American West often find ourselves standing on the site of a major historical event trying to envision it. Going deeper below the surface often helps to enhance our appreciation of the places we love to see. And so we read.

But too many historical sources cover strictly the events without delving into the whys, wherefores, and what-came-of-its.

The Example of the Transcontinental Railroad

Take, for instance, the Transcontinental Railroad. We probably have a love for the landscape that it traverses. We probably know some basics about its construction, such as the Golden Spike and Victory Day. We may even know roughly how the Transcontinental Railroad fit in with other historical events such as the Lewis and Clark expedition, the Oregon Trail, and the Pony Express.

But too often we fail to see all the causes behind the railroad and the effects that came afterward. We may know that a great celebration was held when the Union Pacific crossed the 100th meridian. If asked why, we could probably say (and with a degree of accuracy) that it was important to UP magnate Thomas C. Durant because it ensured that his company would have the main line of the Transcontinental Railroad and that he could now collect a considerable amount of money in subsidies. But if asked why the 100th meridian was chosen as a key milestone, we might be at a loss to answer. To respond that 100 is a nice even number completely falls short of the mark. It fails to draw a connection between crossing the 100th meridian and the fact that few (if any) homesteaders had ventured up to that 100th meridian line thus far, along with the associated questions that this fact raises.

The Factual Error

Diehard history buffs often lament the fact that young people don’t seem to take much interest in history these days. Perhaps this should not surprise us, given the fact that “history” seems to be synonymous with the rote memorization of names, places, and dates. Could it be that more young people would find history more interesting:

  • If they were given the chance to learn the story behind the facts?
  • If they could glimpse the web of interconnected circumstances that gave rise to the events?
  • If they could see how something like the Transcontinental Railroad still touches their modern world?

Knowing that the Golden Spike was driven on May 10, 1869, has relatively little bearing on one’s daily life. Knowing that the ceremony marked a turning point in the way that America would regulate business, for instance, is far more relevant.

History is, at its core, a story. Any effective and interesting story is by nature a connected narrative, not a jumble of facts and figures. And most people, given the choice, would prefer to read a story than a list of facts.

Of course, the facts are essential to the story. Think of your favorite fictional story:

  • What would the story be without its characters, equivalent to the names of a historical text?
  • How would the story take place without a setting, the places and dates of the nonfiction narrative?
  • And what kind of a story has no events?

But what connects these key elements in a well-told story is a purpose or meaning—in other words, a plot. There is an inextricable intertwining of characters, setting, and events (facts) that produces conflict and resolution. Causes have effects, and those effects in turn become new causes.

The classic mistake of textbook history is to strip the story down to the basic facts, leaving it essentially a skeleton. If this is the only exposure to history that young people ever receive, it is little wonder that they regard the subject as something dry and tedious. The only purpose of this type of history, as far as the student is concerned, is to provide a means of attaining passing grades.

The Popular Error

Popular history attempts to remedy these errors by weaving a story around the facts. This version of history is often carefully constructed by an ambitious author and a publishing house desirous of producing a bestseller. The combination know their craft well, and they are quite astute enough to know that most people prefer stories rather than facts in isolation. The problem with this type of history is that the art of temporarily capturing an audience is elevated above the long-lasting meaning of the story itself. The sensational narrative is the one that will grab attention—the more scandalous, the better.

But there is a role that history can play in our everyday lives beyond merely spreading old-time gossip to supplement that of the current day. History is actually an opportunity to explore the modern world. There are reasons why the world is like it is today, and history provides insight into these reasons.

The Transcontinental Railroad Again

To return to the example of the Transcontinental Railroad, there is more that we can extract from its associated corruption besides mere gossip. We can observe and draw our own conclusions on topics ranging from the effect of various worldviews on philanthropy to the role of state and federal government in regulating business of any kind.

Likewise, the Transcontinental Railroad largely gave way to a system of interstate highways. This, too, can provide food for thought on everything from the ideal characteristics of an efficient transportation network to the impact of transportation corridors of various types on local economies.

As for the 100th meridian, that topic invites us to reflect on the propaganda techniques of railroad, in turn influenced by a tangle of economic needs, environmental factors, agricultural practices, and the work of bygone cartographers.

What Is History?

To the question, “What is history?” then, we can respond that history is a story. But not just any story. History is a true story with modern relevance. It is a story of business, technology, politics, and art. It is the intersection of natural forces with human desires. It is a tale of avarice and intrigue, but also a tale of generosity and down-home heroism. It is a story of millions upon millions of choices made—choices that still have consequences today.