The Past Becomes History When…..

…..enough time has passed for us to place the topic into historical context and determine its effect on the course of human events.  Sounds easy, but it’s tricky.

What is “enough time?”  There is no formula.  Many teachers suggest that their students choose topics for study that are at least 20-25 years in the past.  That works most of the time but does not account for events that happened maybe 10 or 15 years ago that, in fact, can be historically examined and significance determined.

The study of history is the study of the course of human events and society.  It involves cause and effect, change over time and consequences.  Historians look for impact which is determined by placing the topic into historical context–the political, cultural, economic, social atmosphere of the time–and consider the “before and after” of the event or individual’s contribution.

For example, a few years after the 9/11 attacks some students wanted to choose 9/11 for their History Day projects.  They felt that they could explain the impact of the event and they were correct regarding initial and immediate fears, legislation, etc.  But it was too soon to examine the “historical” or long-term impact–how did the responses change America?  How did it impact elections, foreign affairs, the lives of everyday Americans?  I think that’s doable now even though it’s only been 10 years.  (And the fun aspect of studying history is that interpretations change with time as well; so it will be interesting to see how historians analyze 9/11 in another 10 or 20 years.)

The current events in the Middle East are another good test case.  We cannot yet determine historical significance of the events in Egypt or Libya.  We can say that Gaddafi was overthrown in Libya.  But what historical impact has that had?  We don’t know yet.  In other words, “So what?”  In which direction is Libya now going?  What kind of government will the country have and what kind of impact will it have on the country and the rest of the world?  It’s still too early to tell.  We cannot yet answer the question, “So what?”

So, it’s not so much about how many years have gone by, but more about whether or not we can see significant change–not just immediate reaction.

Having said that, it’s fine to set an arbitrary time period of 20-25 years in the past for student researchers.  It does make it a bit more clear for them.



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2 responses to “The Past Becomes History When…..

  1. I really liked this post! One of my HD advisors always gives her competitors the 20-25 year limit. I always just took this as a “duh” until about a year ago when I realized that secondary sources play such a big part in determining history!(:

  2. Hello Cathy! I have a question about my topic and I’m hoping you can answer it!

    My topic for this year is the revolutionary alliance between John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt — it was very uncommon for a tree-hugger to be working closely with a big politician in the 20th century. On what is known as perhaps the most influential camping trip of history, Muir convinced Roosevelt to pull Yosemite out of state control and into federal protection — a move which reformed and revolutionized conservation and environmentalism at the time. Right now, in my paper, I have sections on both the alliance and the legislation (which I’ve analyzed). Does this seem like two topics? I don’t think so — it’s two pieces, but you really can’t have one without the other — the alliance itself was revolutionary and it reformed the conservation movement by pulling land out of one party’s hands (who were misusing the valley) into more responsible hands. What are your thoughts?

    (P.S. — I was looking through the theme Q & A to see if I could find the answer there and I saw that we need to focus on the revolution/reform, not the person. My paper doesn’t focus on the individual people (except for context/background) but the alliance as a whole, if that makes more sense).

    Thanks so much! Happy Thanksgiving!

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