This unit explores the special problems of knowledge that arise in History. This Area of Knowledge can be considered as a Human Science but it is treated separately in TOK because unlike all the other human sciences, and other sciences in general, its subject matter cannot be directly observed. This characteristic of History opens up many problems of knowledge that are unique to this Area of Knowledge.

In this unit students will be introduced to different ideas about the nature and purpose of History, and the ways that these ideas can influence the methods used by Historians. Using examples from works by Historians students will reflect on the significance of selection in History. This will lead on to a consideration of the factors that determine selection - the concerns of the recorder, the availability of sources, the predominant views of the age when the History was written, and the ideology of the individual Historian - to name just a few.

The students will learn about the process of evaluating a historical source. A process by which a Historian attempts to remove bias and interpretation from the evidence, and establish an accurate account of a historical event. Through consideration of this process students will get a clearer view of the different Ways of Knowing employed by Historians and how they work together. This will also highlight the particular difficulties facing a subject that studies unique events that can never be repeated and are therefore impossible to test through experiments.

As a result by the end of this unit it should be clear to students that History is an Area of Knowledge that is particularly susceptible to influence from valued judgements. As a conclusion to the unit students will need to reflect on the various ways that the values of a society and the individuals within it can control the content and interpretation of its History.

Guiding Questions

  • What is History?
  • What are the problems with studying the past?
  • Can History remove interpretation from the evidence?
  • How important is the recorder and preserver in History?
  • What is the role of the historian in History?
  • Is the work of the historian mainly analytical or creative?
  • How important is empathy in History?
  • What are the problems with evaluating sources?
  • How much does a historian's context affect History?
  • What is the purpose of History?
  • What are the main ideas about the purpose of History?
  • How do these ideas effect methodology in History?
  • Are all historical interpretations equally valid?
  • What value judgements effect History?
  • How and by whom is History used as propaganda?
  • Who decides what History should be taught in schools?


In this unit, students will...

  • learn about the different ideas about the nature and purpose of History
  • explore the ways in which these ideas can influence knowledge in History
  • become aware of the many problems of knowledge that arise from studying the past
  • learn about the evaluation of historical sources and reflect on the problems of knowledge that this is trying to solve and the problems of knowledge that it can create
  • become aware of the many ways in which historians can influence or even create History
  • explore the different Ways of Knowing that are used by historians, how they are linked and balanced, and what problems of knowledge they create
  • reflect on how "the knowers" context - gender, nationality, culture, religion, era - can have a great influence on their interpretation of History
  • reflect on how value judgments appear in History and consider whether they are positive or negative
  • explore the difficulties of distinguishing between different interpretations of History
  • reflect on how their context has determined and limited their knowledge in History

 History – Content and Scope

What is History?

One of the first questions which must be considered when investigating History as an Area of Knowledge in TOK is "what is History?" The most common answer to this is that it is the study of "the past". However this is much too simplistic and fails to take into account the restrictions placed on History by the recorders of the past and the intervention of historians.

Consider these Quotes about History what do they suggest about the nature and scope of this Area of Knowledge?  

Finally, listen to Margaret MacMillan, Professor of History, Oxford University, talking about this topic.

Introduction to History as a AOK

Introduction to History as an AOK: Evidence

Historians and their purpose: facts and opinions

Introduction to History: Historians and Their Purpose

Which Ways of Knowing are most useful to Historians?

Think about...
  • Would History exist if humans did not have language?
  • Make a list of 10 historical facts, 5 of which must be from before 1850.
  • Write down how you think they might have became historical facts.
  • Compare your list with a partner and decide on the importance of language in creating historical facts.
  • Discuss this with the rest of the class.

What do we study in History?

Make a list of "10 historical figures", then discuss with your partner the criteria you used for deciding. What sort of people are they? Do they all have similar characteristics and come from similar areas of life? Or are all areas of life covered and every different type of person?


What does this tell us about the main areas that are covered by History?


What do we learn from History and why do we study it?

Note down what you think we learn from studying history. Consider both knowledge and skills.  In pairs discuss your notes and use them to help you answer the following questions.

  • Why do we study History?
  • In what ways does the study of History help us to deal with everyday life?
  • Why is History an important part of some cultures or nations, and not of others?
  • In what ways does History help to give us a sense of identity?
  • Why are governments often very interested in the History curriculum?
  • Does History help to bring communities together or does it keep us apart?

Consider why study History in this reading.

Consider the following quote from the historian Gerda Lerner on why History matters:

"We live our lives; we tell our stories. The dead continue to live by way of the resurrections we give them in telling their stories. The past becomes part of our future. We act individually and collectively in a process over time, which builds the human enterprise and tries to give it meaning. Being human means thinking and feeling; it means reflecting on the past and visioning the future. We experience; we give voice to that experience; others reflect on it and give it new form. That new form, in its turn, influences and shapes the way the next generations experience their lives. That is why history matters." (Lerner, Why History Matters,1997)


Why does the present give "new form" to the past?

Can you think of any present day events that might be viewed differently by historians in the future?

Why does our reflection on the past influence and shape our present?

Can you think of any present day events that are strongly affected by the past?

History as a Guide, or to put it another way "learning the lessons of History":

This is the idea that we can learn from the mistakes of previous generations and that one of the most important functions of History is to make sure that we do not "repeat History".

  • How many World Wars; Revolutions; Genocides have there been in History?
  • Try to think of other "mistakes" that seem to have been repeated. Why did this happen? Why didn't people learn from History?
  • Consider the quote " the past is a foreign country they do things differently there." Is it possible to apply lessons learnt in very different periods by very different cultures to life today?
  • List some of the problems which might arise from trying to do this.

History: Methods and Means (Methodology)

The methods historians use to study History ow
e a lot to
Leopold von Ranke.  His idea that History should be studied scientifically led to two important developments:
1) an increasing emphasis on the use of primary sources and
2) a requirement that all sources used by a historian be effectively and extensively referenced in their work.

As a result of these developments historians began to pay a lot more attention to the analysis and evaluation of sources. This meant that they needed to ask many questions about their sources. What sort of questions would they need to ask?
In pairs make a list of the sort of questions that you would ask about a source of information.

Look at the list what to ask about Historical Sources have you covered all the possible questions? Consider sections 1-8 and try to think of examples of how this aspect of a source could make it more or less reliable.


Is History a Science?

Read Arthur Marwick's article Is History a Science? and make a list of all the similarities and differences between History and the Natural or even Human Sciences. What are the principle factors that may prevent History from being scientific? 

Revisionist History

One of the most common reasons for changes of knowledge in History is "revision". This is when Historians revise their view of an event usually for two main reasons

  • new information has been discovered
  • contemporary events have changed their interpretation of the evidence

Watch this student presentation where she explores the changing nature of society's views on Columbus:

MLA Citation Information for Mr. Guenther's Talk 

Guenther, Alex. "Giant Ants and Flying Serpents." TOK Area of Knowledge Presentation. Japan, Yokohama. 7 Oct. 2014. Lecture.

2014 History as an Area of Knowledge in TOK