Foreword | Historical Narratives | Resources | Links | Contact



The history of one's country begins in the heart.

"For mankind is ever the same and nothing is lost out of nature though everything is altered."
John Dryden

"Nothing is more concrete than history, nothing less interested in theories or in abstract ideas."
Eugen Weber

History matters. Widespread public support for the study of Canadian history confirms that history is not simply another subject but a critical part of the curriculum. The study of history is often said to make us wiser, more cautious and more restrained. If we are to understand today we must search yesterday.

"It is important to know that we did not just arrive here fully formed tumbling from the heavens." We have a past which is the birthplace of the future. It is easy to forget the past was once the future. History by informing us about the past, enables us to judge the future. A better understanding of history may even permit us to achieve some control over our own fate.

It has been said that failure to know our history could result in us becoming a nation without a memory. Memory is life that has passed into history and the key to a country's destiny lies in its past. If we forget about the lives that have been lived, our country risks forsaking its future because no society can be true to itself unless it knows its beginnings. We lose touch with the past at our peril. Continuity in human affairs is critical. Without it "we are as flies in summer."

The past is never simply the past. It always has something to say to us; it tells us the paths to take and the paths not to take.
Pope Benedict

History in the proper sense began with the Greeks when they started to criticize their own legends to see if they were true. So far as is known no attempt was made before the sixth century B.C to sort out critically the data of the past motivated by the will to disbelieve. This willingness to be as satisfied to discover what had not happened as to find out what had happened marks the emergence of the scientific spirit into the art of story-telling. In the true sense history combines these two. The word 'history' itself comes to us from these sixth century Ionians and is the name they gave to their achievement.

History is a grand mirror in which we are reflected. "The virtues of great men and women serve me as a sort of looking glass into which I may see how to adjust and adorn my own life." Because the secret of really knowing and judging ourselves is to see ourselves in others, historical memory is the key to our self-identity. Without it we have no shared remembrance of our past, no knowledge of our common values and no perception of how the past led to the present. History imparts wisdom from the past because all wisdom is not new wisdom.

"People must know the past to understand the present and to face the future."
Nellie McClung

We all have history to draw upon. Across the stage of history the peoples of the earth pass in turn, each exhibiting its hurts and its happiness. History is a procession of infinite ages, time's scroll of human destiny unfurled from the past through the present to the future. "While we see multitudes passing before us, we should remember that we are likewise lost in the great throng. The eye which happens to glance on us is turned in a momemt on those that follow."

History explores the past, informs the present and enhances the future. "We cannot say the past is past, without surrendering the future." Being aware of history equips us better "not only to be history, but perhaps even to make it." The past is prologue to the present and chronicles the journey of our ancestors with all their trials, tribulations, tragedies and triumphs - the stuff of history. The mystery of time past continually enthralls. Long before us, dwelt folk as real as we are today, now utterly vanished as we in our turn shall vanish.

Such as thou art, so once was I
As I am now so shalt thou be.

History parts the curtain of cloud and provides a magic glimpse of these people - their hopes, fears, words and works. As we learn about their lives, we cannot but help feeling "pride and elation as well as awe and anguish at how varied, complex, unpredictable, wretched and glorious is human life." These individuals were neither mere imaginary creatures of fiction, nor remote, make-believe, soft, sissy figures. They were real, rugged and resourceful and helped shape the greatness of our country. The more we know about the indomitable spirit of the men and women who fell, only to rise again to fight the good fight and bequeath to us the benefits of their hard-won experiences, the more we will cherish our country and its accomplishments.

"I know a man whose school could never teach him patriotism, but who acquired that virtue when he felt in his bones the vastness of his land and the greatness of those who founded it."
Pierre Elliot Trudeau

We are heirs of the past. We have been shaped by those who came before us, just as we will influence those who succeed us after we too descend into the depths of time. "A nation is a partnership between the dead, the living and the unborn. It is our responsibility to preserve our nation and its history and to fulfill our duty to this partnership." Knowledge of history enlarges our human experience and increases our self-awareness by creating a link with those who have preceded us. Without some understanding of our roots and our place in the flow of history, we cannot fully understand our own personal opinions, prejudices and emotional reactions. History has to tell us.

History is what we need to know to understand our country and the world.

"Time is a river of passing events, aye a rushing torrent." It describes the storied past of action, intrigue, hope and despair - the saga of people on this planet. History anatomizes time and permits us in a but a brief moment, to perceive other times and places and learn about the lives of those who are no more. We become the contemporaries of all centuries in all countries. For curious and inquiring minds, it is a fascinating discovery of what time has left behind. Reading history is comparable in many respects to foreign travel. The student, like the tourist, is transported into a new time and different state of society, where she/he sees new fashions and is exposed to new experiences and expressions. Her/his mind is expanded by learning about the wide diversities of laws, morals and manners.

History need not be a weary pilgrimage through dusty, dreary textbooks or interminably tiresome memorization of lists of dates, names and places leading to a fixed result. It is well to remember, however, that while having to learn dates, names and places may be burdensome and boring they are critically important. What would we do without them? e.g. 1812, 1837, 1867, 1945. They are basic since they establish sequence by indicating what preceded and what followed thereby leading towards an understanding of cause and effect. They are "the bones of historical anatomy."

Chronology, the sequence of historical events, is a method of structuring time by placing all happenings in the order in which they occurred. It is the key to narrative. It allows us to establish relationships - learn what came first, what was the cause, what was the effect. Without chronological order issues and events become mixed up, muddled, confused and difficult to understand. Using evidence from the past and examining cause and effect relationships, it is possible to discover what might influence the future. Unless causes and connections are considered along with facts, history is but "a rope of sand," a panorama that passes quickly before our eyes.

To Clio
With the willingness of one who was alive when these things happened to abide by the verdict of her cold lips.

Clio, the muse or Greek goddess of history, appeals to our love of stories. Within Clio's great grasp there are myriad tales which start with expressions like "Let me tell you about ...," or "In the beginning ..." that pique our interest. The word history comes from the Greek "historia - an account of one's inquiries." It shares that etymology with the English word 'story'. Some historians are story tellers who deal with true stories that stimulate interest and provide pictures for the imagination, effects which can be produced without violating truth.


The word story can refer to a person's entire life or a single moment in that life. It can refer to factual narratives and fictitious ones and even suggest a lie, a "tall story" Stories work and stories matter because they are fundamental to the way we understand the world. Stories not only help us comprehend the world, they help us remember what we have learned. Life is too complex to comprehend without being reduced to manageable dimensions. Stories are the tools we use to bring order to chaos. Stories are where facts gain meaning. We all instinctively appreciate the power of stories. The stories we like best contain heroes. Hero stories have many elements, but there is always a moment of unveiling, an event that sets them apart from others and marks them as extraordinary - defining the person's character and marking him/her as a person to be watched.

History began in myths - a traditional story of unknown authorship. The word myth in this case means that which is generally believed to be true. Early historians were simple story-tellers whose history came from myths and legends. Like drama and the novel history grew out of mythology. History is fundamentally a form of story-telling, an answer to the question what happened next? History is a flow of events - a tale well told. It can sometimes tell the truth, it can sometimes lie, but it always tells a story.

Good story-telling is at the heart of good history. Many believe that the historian's principal craft is the art of narrative: character revealed by actions over time. "The art of history is the art of narrative: that is bedrock." It is the lifeblood of history. The Greek Herodotus, commonly called the father of history, was a story-teller and every great historian since his time has shared this role. It is narrative that counts. Stories unfold. Always have always will.

History should flow like a stream not squat like a puddle. It need never be dull and 'dryasdust.' It can be as exciting as any fictitious tale. "In the right hands truth can be just as thrilling as fiction."

"Deal in anecdote as well as character, for often epiphany is worth a thousand words of expostion." Details, leaks and lore, the little-known aspects of great historical moments, are never too trivial for the majesty of history. Pages should brim with vignettes, for stories starved of anecdotes are less interesting. They add life and colour to the work of historians Private letters, diaries, reports, orders and messages lend immediacy and intimacy and reveal character. They make circumstances come alive. When history is highlighted with sketches, incidents and anecdotes - what Winston Churchill called "the gleaming toys of history" - it appeals to our imagination while enriching our knowledge. Constructed out of personal details that are seemingly minor matters - little-known events, fragmentary tales, interesting episodes and chance discoveries - history can paint an intriguing picture of a vanished life.

Such shards have often been relegated to the footnotes of history, but as they recochet through time they enhance history with special human interest, life and vitality. Gripping and firing the imagination, they ease our entrance into the past by providing images and impressions of individuals in the widest sense. It is well to remember that history is full of small, trifling, fortuitous events, close-up stories or little history books, recounting events that had momentous consequences and may even have changed the world.

History began with biography because the lives of powerful people were written about before stories of great events. If history is the science of men/women in time, then biography may justly claim to be the science of one man/woman in time. While biography becomes history when it considers the individual in his setting in society, it is biography, not history, when it deals exclusively with a single life. Some writers argue that biography is history in its most digestible form. They argue the most memorable hallway to history is personality. To them there is no history, only biography, because the forces behind what we call history have their roots in human beings and their behaviour. The first duty of a biographer is to preserve a becoming brevity - a brevity which excludes everything that is redundant and nothing that is significant. According to Lytton Strachey, "It is perhaps as difficult to write a good life as to live one."

"There is properly no history, only biography." Ralph Waldo Emerson

"History is the sum of innumerable biographies." Thomas Carlyle

The perpetual debate of biographers and historians asks: Is history created by individuals on their own volition or does history follow laws of its own by bringing forth at the right time and at a predestined place the individual required to fulfil its predetermined, inescapable will? Winston Churchill worded it this way. "Is the march of events ordered and guided by eminent individuals or do our leaders merely fall into their places at the heads of moving columns? Is history the chronicle of famous men and women or only their response to the tides, tendencies and opportunities of their age? I range myself with those who view the past history of the world mainly as a tale of exceptional human beings whose thoughts, actions, qualities, virtues, triumphs, weaknesses and crimes have dominated the fortunes of the race."

Another historian, Eugen Weber, defined history this way. "History is not just what happened, but to whom and how; not just wars and politics, the doings of a relatively restricted group, but the way people lived - humbler and middling people, the rich as well - their food, their housing, the warp and woof of their existence."

Biography acts as a kind of historical prism which attracts and holds the reader's interest in the larger subject. People are curious about the fortunes and the failures of other people. "The history of the world is but the biographies of great women and great men." Regardless of their greatness, Winston Churchill warned "To do justice to a great person, discriminating criticism is always necessary. Gush, however, quenching, is always insipid."

The appeal of biography does have its restrictions. One skilled biographer acknowledged the limitations of his craft when he noted that nine-tenths of a human life remains essentially unknowable to an outsider. This is uncharted land hidden from view and experienced only in the mind of the individual. The truth of that statement is readily apparent when you think about your own daily existence and all the things that run through your consciousness that you never tell anyone, not even those closest to you.

Others believe that biography is the handmaiden of history and that working hand in hand they create colourful history. Feisty folk interacting with the whimsy of chance - gutsy people in the hands of fate - produce human destiny. History is both a story and a study of encounters between character and circumstance. It combines creative story-telling with profiles of ordinary, imperfect, vulnerable people who lived, loved, worried and worked in a very real world. The emphasis is on the dust and sweat, the labour and laughter, the thoughts and actions, the hopes and dreams of individuals and groups vulnerable to the failings of human nature and the human spirit. These are very real individuals whose efforts and emotions once moved and still motivate people. They are "the passionate beating heart of history."

History can be either actual events which took place in the past or explanations of them, but all history has to be selective. When "a throng of events is marching abreast progress must be modified by selection and classification." The extensive materials available to historians requires them to choose a manageable number of facts and faces and arrange them in dramatic narratives. Any book can contain only a small part of what really occurred. Because no historian can put in the account everything that happened history is not unchanging truth.

The historian's task is to find out how it really happened, a goal that will remain forever just outside her/his grasp. Because the historian was not there she/he cannot be sure they have recaptured it as it really was, but at least they can stay within the evidence.

A historian endeavours to determine how it really was. Wherever there is found "a chipped flint, a pyramid, a poem, a coin, there was history." Information comes from a variety of sources and surviving documents - "emissaries from the past" like letters, diaries, essays, poetry, and petitions are often fragmentary or flawed. Frequently too, crime, crisis and calamity are over-emphasized. "In reading history one must always be impressed by the fact that our knowledge is only a collection of scraps and fragments that we put together in a pleasing design and often the discovery of one new fragment would cause us to alter utterly the whole design." When gaps exist in the information that is available, "probably and presumably proliferate." History exists in all our lives and we each make history through our choices, actions and relationships. To some extent anyone who says I was there and this is what happened is a historian.

The past has no definite shape. No previous event has a fixed meaning. When historians state past reality in terms of certainty, all they are actually doing is giving their impression or interpretation of what took place. "Written history for all its footnotes is a relative of speculative or science fiction." Historian George Steiner put it another way. "History is exact imagining." For this reason we should "interrogate documents and display a due skepticism regarding the writer's motives."

Blended with historical issues and events is the personality of the historian. "The facts of history never come to us pure. They are always refracted through the mind of the historian." While this does not convert historical fact into fiction, it does change it into something different from the simple truth. The "past is foreign country" and every time it is visited by the historian history is interpreted differently.

"Historical bias is caused by some current of emotion which carries a person's reason off the straight line which should lead to sound judgement based on adequate evidence or perhaps to an admission that there is not sufficient evidence to make a final judgement."

Unbiased truth in history is really difficult to achieve, since no one is omniscient or completely detached from what they write. Only God knows the real truth - how it actually happened.

History is all things to all people. Each historian's decision to use or not to use this or that item results in different meanings being given to the facts. Facts while important have no voice by themselves. They speak only through historians who alone decide what they will put into their 'cut and paste' histories. Using basically the same documentation, historians arrive at very different explanations. The reasons for this are varied. A story influences the historian as much as she/he influences it. Historians have different methodologies and philosophies and these determine what they select and how they sift and separate the data before they make historical judgements. Selection is what determines the final product.

Historians cannot divorce themselves from the outlook and interests of the time in which they live. For this reason all history is contemporary, that is, tied to the historian's own time and place. The foundry of history recasts and reshapes from generation to generation. This results in historians from one generation revising the conclusions of their predecessors. Nevertheless, historians must operate within the confines of their subject. When judging the conduct of men and women "warts and all," historians must make it by the standards of the age in which they [the judged] lived.

Distortion is a necessary characteristic of all sources of information. Absolute objectivity is absolutely unobtainable. The subjective element of personality cannot be eliminated from historical writing. The more historians have to condense and to simplify their materials, the harder it is to mask their prejudices. Some historians intentionally put their own spin on historical interpretations resulting in biased accounts of events. The writer wants to create a version that twists and slants history to suit his/her nation's prejudices. This patriotic account, that treats history as a means of glorifying the national past and enhancing pride of country, results in one-sided history - history hunting for heroes. Heroes, however, can lead one "down the garden primerose path." When history is used as a branch of propaganda, it can become a deadly weapon.

If adopted this prejudicial point-of-view determines not only what historians decide to include, but also what they decide to leave out. To be an informed and knowledgeable reader one must be able to recognize not only the bias, prejudice and propaganda the writer has included, but also the critical details the writer has chosen to omit. This requires a reasonable level of background information. Some say bias is to be expected and can be compensated for and corrected by reading other versions.

It is claimed by some that in order to be a good historian, "it is necessary to have no religion, no country, no profession and no party." Others maintain there is no such thing as an objective historian, "for without an opinion a historian would be simply a ticking clock." However, one can have an opinion without it being biased in favour of the 'family'.

The resounding voices of history can be disproved and this often results in disagreements which make history an argument without end. Controversy is the only road to historical truth because truth is promoted by the clash of honest judgments. "In the open court of Clio advocates must wrangle and put their evidence in the box and bully the other side's witnesses." History becomes, therefore, a continuous discussion, an ongoing quest for the truth, but whose truth? It is argued that history is not "a body of ascertained truth but rather a series of accepted judgements, a welter of opinions various and variable, playing on a body of accepted facts that is itself aways expanding." Thus history is ever-becoming, never completed. All history is selective, hence history is a version of events.

History opens and closes with questions so it is a process without end. The lack of any fixed and final statement in history means that different writers produce different stories resulting in different history from different books. These multiple meanings make history more interesting and when taken together lead us in the right direction. Although the absolute truth may never be known, new research, new discoveries, new documents, new interpretations and new revelations provide new insights and move us ever closer to the truth. Therefore with our ultimate end always history, let us reach out and touch the past by reading imaginatively of "good and evil and things unknown."

Without history no one would know anything about his parents or ancestors; no one would know his own rights and those of others or how to maintain them.

"To know nothing of what happened before you were born is to remain forever a child."

"I do so enjoy reading history books; they remind me just how important - how vital - learning history truly is."


Copyright © 2013 Website Administrator

What is History?
Why Learn History?
History & Historians

Curriculum Connections
Curriculum Data
Historical Thinking