History is the systematic study of the past. Events prior to the invention of written records are often regarded as prehistoric. “historic” is a broad umbrella term containing the documentary record, interpretation, discovery, accumulation, preservation, and organization of those events. In the last century or so, with the advent of better written records and the increasing interconnectivity of human thought, historians have sought to draw ever-closer connections between events and mankind’s past. The discipline of history has also shed light on mankind’s evolution from pre-historical cultures to the dawn of modernity.
History departments at many universities and colleges offer courses on history and on the history of the United States and much of Western Europe. A history major pursues graduate degrees in history, but history students may also choose to major in a field of other study, such as English literature, American history, or Middle Eastern studies. One area that increasingly attracts students to the history field is the arts and sciences, particularly computer studies, applied linguistics, anthropology, art history, astronomy, business history, chemistry, and physics. Students of history, though, must pursue a bachelor’s degree, but some colleges and universities offer programs with only a two-year program, which will allow students to complete their degree within a year or less.
Primary sources are what historians use to reconstruct the past, drawing on a variety of primary sources such as diaries, letters, newspapers, diaries and memoirs, official and private documents, government documents, memoirs, pamphlets, and printed works. Primary sources give historians a fuller picture of history than secondary sources, since they directly tell us about specific individuals, places, and events. While primary sources help to support a particular story, secondary sources tend to corroborate and refute it. Primary materials also help scholars gain an understanding of how history is organized, how time changes and events influence it, and how to research primary and secondary sources effectively.
The written word often has a specific political or cultural slant, reflecting the writers’ point of view on a specific event or people. In this case, historians need to decide which slant is appropriate for the piece. They can write political history, which emphasizes the viewpoints of leaders and power structures in politics. Historians who prefer to write history in the perspective of a single character may choose to write political history, or history of the masses, which depicts the lives of ordinary people during important periods in history. Whatever the reader wants their article to convey, the slant should be clear.
Another way historians can use secondary sources to learn more about past events is through studying the many different disciplines that touch on the subject. Each of these disciplines offers differing insights into the ways that history is made up, as well as different methods of telling the stories of past events. For example, scholars studying history in the field of history in the United States have various disciplines to choose from, such as American history, women’s history, and American culture. The diversity of subjects lends variety to the material, making it easier for students to follow the threads of history.
Another way in which studying history lends itself to multi-faceted sources is through the use of secondary sources from other parts of the world. For example, scholars studying international history will find themselves using European history to gain a fuller understanding of world events, or Asian history for a more detailed look at ancient Asian civilizations. Using secondary sources from other parts of the world helps students learn more about how cultures differ, as well as how they connect with one another. Secondary sources also help scholars connect the studies of history with other areas of study.