What is History?

Berkeley Connect History students delve into the heart of history 


Last week, I joined Berkeley Connect History graduate mentor Adrianne Francisco as she facilitated a small-group discussion of an important question: what is history?

To help the students answer this question, Adrianne gave groups of students a word or phrase and asked them to sketch out how to begin writing its history. “Ask yourself: what stories would you include?” Adrianne said. “What kind of sources would you look for? What kinds of questions would you ask?”

The first group of students were tasked with the history of Telegraph Avenue and took very different approaches. One student was interested in the stories of the homeless on Telegraph Avenue and the concept of the street as a home. Another student wanted to study Telegraph Avenue and Berkeley in the 1960s and cited sources such as city documents and tax records. Yet another student wanted to go back further, to before California was a state, and to review old maps to explore what the area we now know as Telegraph Avenue once was.

Another group was given the word “freeways.” This group, too, had many ideas, from the downfall of street cars to the urbanization and displacement of people that comes with the building of freeways. One student from China had never before heard the term “freeways.” “It seems like a very American concept,” she said. Another student pointed out, however, that the freeway was adopted from Europe and initially built to transport military equipment. One student claimed that freeways were originally also intended to be emergency landing strips for planes.

The third group explored coffee – everything from its origins to its link to imperial growth and trade.

At the end of this exercise, Adrianne asked the students to reflect on why they made the decisions they did and asked the questions they asked. For some, it had to do with personal experiences. For example, one of the students in the group discussing coffee doesn’t drink coffee and was thus interested to know whether it was actually effective and the history of its origins. Students agreed that the exercise revealed that there are many different approaches available to a historian on any given topic.

The students then debated whether history fits within the social sciences or the humanities. One student said she considered it a social science because it is grounded in reality. But another student argued that while history is based on facts, historians interpret them and in that way, create history. Someone else added that history often has a motive, much like telling any story does, and in that way, differs from math and other sciences.

Adrianne agreed with both views. “Historical analysis is not a Betty Crocker recipe,” she added. “You don’t have all the ingredients or know the temperature. Sometimes you don’t even know if you’re supposed to make a cupcake or a cake. Historians have a lot of responsibility.”


posted by Katherine Wang
Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant