To study history is to do history. And the only way we can do history is to examine the available records from the past and then write about them. So, doing history means writing history. To learn about the past we have two alternatives. The first is to go to the primary sources themselves. In other words, if you wanted to learn about Galileo’s astronomical and philosophical arguments for the motion of the earth, you could do no better than read his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems–Ptolemaic and Copernican (1632). The second alternative and the one more likely chosen by most students at the high school or undergraduate level is to go to the secondary sources. In this instance, we have a number of works from which to choose, for example: Giorgio de Santillana, The Crime of Galileo (1955); Pietro Redondi, Galileo Heretic (1987); Stillman Drake, Galileo at Work: His Scientific Biography (1978).
Notice that this list of secondary sources pertain to Galileo in general and not specifically to his ideas on the motion of the earth. The secondary sources offer a broader appreciation of the topic. They are an example of “doing history,” writing history. When students write about this secondary literature, they are entering into the discourse of history by the simple fact that they are now adding their own perspective.
This is fine, but why write history? After all, you plan to become a doctor, or a professor of economics, or a cabinetmaker or a webmaster. What good does it do you to know how to write history? Why must you do history?
1. Writing history will help you learn history. We have already discussed the importance of becoming actively engaged in the subject of history. What better way to do so than to actually do it? In other words, writing about history means a personal involvement with history and this will necessarily produce a greater understanding of history, a good thing in itself!
2. Writing history will force you to understand history to a much greater degree. Listening to a lecture, or viewing a film, or reading a monograph, or taking part in a class discussion is one thing. But writing about this “experience” will demonstrate your general understanding of history. As you write, you demonstrate evidence. You produce a logical argument. However, there are also times when writing allows you to express your confusion regarding a particular idea, event or thing. Writing allows to you to bring that confusion to the surface and hopefully, you’ll be able to answer your own question. At the very least, you’ll be able to show that something needs to be more fully explored.
3. Writing history gives you the chance to render your opinion. Since the interpretation of history is always subjective, writing allows you to persuade the reader of your argument. For instance, many historians have interpreted the Thirty Years’ War as an example of what would later be called a world war and therefore a modern war. There are other historians who disagree. They say that the Thirty Years’ War is an example of a medieval war, or even the last medieval war. This is where you step in. Having read a variety of interpretations, you are now prepared to voice your own. You may agree or disagree, that much is clear. But the real issue at stake here is that now is the chance to submit your interpretation.
4. Writing history gets you in the habit of synthesizing large quantities of material. Evidence must be gathered and prioritized. General thesis statements must be fashioned from the evidence at hand. You begin to learn about the general topic upon which you are writing as well as several topics which appear on the peripheries of your topic.
5. Lastly, writing history will help you to better organize your thoughts, that goes without saying. The historian must exhibit some kind of logic or the analysis falls apart. Studying history, thinking history, writing history–in a word, doing history–is not easy. No, it is difficult and requires much sustained effort. Some people are not capable of that kind of sustained effort.
Take charge of your efforts to do history. Gain as much confidence as you can. Develop your own historical perspective. Remember, the study of history and the writing of history is not a passive response to the historical past. No, it is much more than that. History involves the active engagement of your life with all life. The pastness of the past is the key to the present.