Asking Historical Questions: Wait, that’s Redundant

One of the history courses I took as an undergraduate at Santa Clara University was History of California with the late Father Jerry McKevitt, S.J.1 The class was very interesting, and I enjoyed doing my research paper on Helen Hunt Jackson, a 19th-century reformer whose novel Ramona became known as the “Indian Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”2 I didn’t go on to study California history in graduate school or to teach it in any of my classes. I do, however, frequently make use of something I learned in the class. One day Father McKevitt was returning graded papers to us, and they must have been pretty bad, because I remember him saying, “Listen, people. History answers two questions: ‘What happened?’ and ‘So what?’” (I assume that this particular set of papers had not done a good job of answering one or both of these questions.) I remember thinking to myself, “Whoa. That’s so true.” In just about every one of my history courses, at some time or other I quote Father McKevitt to the students.

Father Gerald McKevitt, S.J.

Approaching the study of our discipline by means of asking questions is particularly appropriate for historians. Of course, practitioners of any scholarly discipline might say that they begin by asking questions. But for us historians, it’s right in our name. The first writer to use the word “history” in the context of the study of the past was the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, known as the “Father of History.” The English title of his work is Histories, a translation of the original ancient Greek Historie, meaning “inquiries” (from the verb historien, “to inquire”). This is his opening sentence:

“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feud.” 3

Because what Herodotus inquired about was the events of the past (“the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the barbarians”), and because he presented the answers to his inquiries in book form (“These are the researches [historie] of Herodotus of Halicarnassus”), the word historie came to mean not just the act of inquiry but also the subject of the inquiry (the history of the Persian Wars) and the result of the inquiry (A History of the Persian Wars). But students of history should always keep in mind that doing history begins with asking questions. And make sure that your historical writing clearly and completely answers both the “what happened?” and the “so what?” Father McKevitt said so!

  1. Father McKevitt was also the University Archivist; I was a student worker there. Possible future blog entry!
  2. Another possible future blog entry!
  3. Herodotus, The Histories, in M.I. Finley, ed., The Greek Historians: The Essence of Herodotus, Thucydides, Xenophon, Polybius, Viking Portable Library (New York: Viking Press, 1960), 29.