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Forrest McDonaldHistory is a mode of thinking that wrenches the past out of context and sequence, out of the way it really happened, and reorders it in an artificial way that facilitates understanding and remembering…. Historians—whether Everyman, recalling his immediate or distant past, or professionals, attempting to reconstruct the past by studying relics of it—deal in generalizations. To make a generalization is to observe tangible particulars and reduce them to abstractions. Even in considering what is directly and visually observed, that is the process….

And yet, subjective and artificial as it is, such thinking can communicate an understanding of objective historical reality, much as a map, another contrivance of the imagination, can convey an understanding of objective topographical reality. Whether it does so depends largely upon the level at which the generalization is made. As we live our lives, events unfold simultaneously on a number of levels, from the personal and local to the national and international. The subject matter under investigation dictates both the level of generalization and the questions and data that are relevant to it. Normally these are more obvious to the later investigator than to the participants in the events being investigated, for, though the historian seeks to understand from the participants’ point of view, he knows—as they cannot know—how the story comes out.

— Forrest McDonald, Recovering the Past: A Historian’s Memoir

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4 replies to this post
  1. At my undergraduate institution, there were, in lieu of a core curriculum, a set of “distribution requirements.” One had to take a certain number of courses in each of four groups. The first was languages and literature. The second included all of the rest of the humanities. The third was the social sciences. The fourth encompassed natural and applied sciences, and mathematics.

    History (my major) was included in the second group, as one of the humanities. Although many institutions (my daughter’s among them), lump history in with the so called social sciences, I think my college’s approach was correct, for reasons including those articulated by Mr. McDonald.

  2. history then is more like poetry perhaps than science….of course read Owen Barfield…even science is not so much like science anymore…..

  3. Was not Napoleon Bonaparte the originator of the saying “what is history but a fable agreed upon”? It becomes more accurate as the years pass. Dominos vobiscum.

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