Principles of Study for American History

Faithfulness to the truth of history involves far more than a research, however patient and scrupulous, into special facts. Such facts must be detailed with the most minute exactness, and yet the narrative, taken as a whole, may be a unmeaning or untrue. The narrator must seek to imbue himself with the life and spirit of the time. He must study events in their bearings near and remote; in the character, habits, and manners of those who took part in them. He must himself be, as it were a sharer or a spectator of the action he describes.

~~ Francis Parkman*

History helps us to understand people, but IT must be studied in the context of the times in which the HISTORY took place and not in the context of our times.  There is a place for the study of past history in the context of our times, but that should be in the last place of the process of studying a historical person, event or way of thinking.

The Context in which HISTORY takes place affects our understanding of the importance or the significance to that history.

Some history can have a universal affect.

Some history can have a local affect.

Some history can have an individual or personal affect.

BUT ALL of these affects do not stay within the immediate boundaries of that history; it radiates outward affecting a larger portion of history, thereby having an influence on the future.  It’s like being behind a high-power speed boat propelling through water, the affect of the wave’s wake has a different affect depending on how close or how far away it is from the land, or how the deep the water is, or how fast the boat is moving.

Since History can have incidental and/or amazing affects, it is vitally important to know how to study history and how to responsibly use it for truth and the betterment of mankind.  And so CONTEXT is the word.  The CONTEXT of a historical element must, and can only, be interpreted correctly in its context!

This type of historical study is not possible with the history of all nations to the same extent as it is possible with the study of American History. The multitude of existing original documents, and copies of primary documents, to the wealth of primary resources, like historical history books and primers, maps, letters, journals, diaries, autobiographies, biographies, literature, music, art and so much more, make if possible to KNOW the truth about America’s History. And because of all of this, and so much more, we can study American History within its Context. We Can KNOW the How and Why.  Changes, questions, enduring traditions, reasons, origins, ideas, AND on and on, can be investigated, analyzed and critiqued.

What is so critically important for you to know is:  you can do it for yourself!! You can find out the truth of the matter for yourself!

There is a method which can be used in order to properly study and interpret history within its CONTEXT.  Following are points to be considered in this approach:

  • Be an observer:  look at the historical subject matter before and after its point in time.
  • Be a detective:  objectively study the historical subject within its context/time.
  • Be an inquirer:  see what the history has to say about itself, and then what others of that same time period, who may not have been involved, have to say.
  • Be an anthropologist:  understand the cultural setting and the customs of the time being studied.
  • Be an etymologist:  study the meaning of words at the time they were used.
  • Be a analyst: look at the history in question against the WHOLE of history (past and present)
  • Be a critical thinker:  pull it all together for meaning and application

Developing a VISUAL for the Context or Background of the HISTORY is not a necessity, but some believe it adds a dimension to understanding the history.  This could be done by visiting the physical site on which the history took place, or watching a multimedia presentation of the history:  documentaries, historical docudramas, historical movies (however, care should be taken in the use of this method only after a good amount of research has been done, for these presentations will have their own biases based upon the opinion, rightly or not, of the historical research done by someone else).

Whether it be within your mind’s eye, or a timeline, or in a notebook, create a backdrop for the background on which the platform to your HISTORICAL presentation can be staged.  Let the HISTORY play in your mind as you read the words about the HISTORY. Refuse to let the lives and times of the History you are studying become JUST an academic exercise. These were REAL live people like you, your family and friends.  Their lives gave us our freedoms.

 It is NOT enough to know something, as in knowing facts. It goes beyond the facts that can be placed on a timeline, to the “why” of the facts on the timeline. And when you discover the “why”, from the CONTEXT, the HISTORY will become your HISTORY!  It will become important to you!  You will be excited and passionate about it—so much so, that it becomes part of you… It will affect you personally.  And that type of learning is learning with an edge.


*Francis Parkman (1823 – 1893) has been regarded as one of America’s great historians, and in particular, for his master of narrative in such works as “The Oregon Trail: Sketches of Prairie and Rocky-Mountain Life” and his 7-volume work of  “France and England in North America”.