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History and Heritage

You may assume the terms “history” and “heritage” can be used interchangeably. Both history and heritage deal with the past, and you have probably heard the two terms used in similar ways. However, there are distinctive and significant ways to separate “history” and “heritage.”

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There are individuals who study history from a scholarly perspective. Those who study history read the work of other scholars, who produce what is known as secondary sources. Those who study history also read a wide range of primary sources, which include evidence such as letters, diaries, and other materials that come to us from a particular historical moment in time. Sifting through this knowledge, they look for areas where information may be lacking, and they ask new questions. Those who study history are not satisfied with a single interpretation of the past—they know that different perspectives can alter how we understand a historical moment.

Different perspectives can be found through a number of ways. For example, consider the subject of the American Revolution. If you only looked at the event through a description of the life and words of Benjamin Franklin, you might come away with a decided opinion on the leadership, causes, and results tied to that event. However, were you to examine the Revolution through the eyes of Franklin’s son, William Franklin, you might see the event in an entirely different light, as William stood on the opposite side of the war as a Loyalist.

Other perspectives are achieved by historians who look at moments from different angles. For example, consider the conclusions we might reach if we looked at the American Revolution through a purely economic lens. We might place a great deal of emphasis on the subject of taxation, or the connection between the fur trade and controlled settlement in the West. How would this view of the past change if we instead viewed the event through the lens of gender, race, or religion? What happens if we look at the past through all of these lenses? We now have an interpretation of the past that is much richer. It may, however, also come with uncomfortable realizations or conclusions; for example, if we study the American Revolution by looking at the Native American or African American experience, it can be unsettling to learn the reasons why certain individuals did not support what we as Americans traditionally consider to be the “right” side.

This is where “heritage” comes into play. Heritage can make the past feel nice and tidy, as it memorializes the past without including the elements that can make us feel uncomfortable. Heritage is a community effort—those who embrace it agree upon a particular storyline and are often wary of allowing outside influences to disrupt the shared narrative. Heritage can be used in a variety of ways. In some cases, it can make us marvel, feel proud, or encourage individuals to feel as though they belong to something bigger than themselves. For example, think about how parades or historical reenactments have made you feel when you participate in or view such events: You are part of something you can take pride in along with the many others who share a particular feeling in a particular moment with you. These events may also help you feel connected to those who lived in the past—they widen the sense of community and of belonging to something “greater.” It is important to remember that while a sense of heritage can be a great motivator in encouraging us to preserve the past, it can also present challenges in interpreting that past.

As you can see, there are key differences between “history” and “heritage.” Being able to differentiate between the two will aid you as you continue to learn how the past is viewed, examined, and remembered.

History’s Importance

History is, at the very least, the story of how the present came into existence. The lives that we live today are dependent on what came before. The purpose of this class is to help you understand how the academic study of history works, but you should also understand how history influences the world, culture, and community in which you live. A major aspect of the work historians do is interpreting the historical significance and relevance of past people and events to society. However, is history written for its own sake as an objective analysis of the past, or should it be written in a manner that helps people understand the world they live in today (Novick, 1988)? This is a question historians have grappled with for decades. When historians study primary documents to produce secondary sources (e.g., books, articles, documentaries) about historical topics, they must be aware of how presentism impacts how they determine historical importance and meaning. Presentism refers to how the time period in which a historian writes their history impacts how they interpret the past. For example, a historian who argues that colonial destruction of tea in the Boston Harbor to protest British taxation was illogical because of the harsh punishments rendered to Massachusetts by King George III might be influenced by presentism because they are not examining the events of the Boston Tea Party from the context of the growing conflict between the colonies and England in 1773 that caused the Sons of Liberty to believe that destroying the tea would settle the dispute over representation in Parliament.

It may seem obvious that the present is built on the past. The precise relationship between the past and the present is not always clear, however. The job of the historian is to demonstrate that relationship by analyzing how things change over time. In this course, you will consider historical events and their connections to the present. Later, this will take the form of a research project, but for now, we will consider how history can affect the lives of individuals and the entire nation.

Historical Bias

In history, bias is defined as the incorporation of personal assumptions, beliefs, and values into historical writing. Sometimes this bias is conscious, and other times it is unconscious. Reading a bit more about a historian can help you understand their personal assumptions, beliefs, and values. In turn, this can help you understand what biases they might potentially introduce in their writing.

Two major historians, Howard Zinn and Larry Schweikart, have written popular books on American history containing very different historical interpretations of the same events. Explore this interactive resource on Zinn and Schweikart to learn about their different personal assumptions, beliefs, and values that might influence how each historian interprets historical events and might introduce bias into their writing.

A text only version is available: A Tale of Two Historians Text Only Transcript

Perspectives: A Tale of Two Historical Biases After reviewing the interactive above bit about Zinn’s and Schweikart’s personal assumptions, beliefs, and values, take a look at how they have written about the same historical events: Christopher Columbus’s arrival in the Americas in 1492. As you read through each excerpt, be sure to consider what biases may be present in their work.

Zinn, H. (2010). A people’s history of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial. “To emphasize the heroism of Columbus and his successors as navigators and discoverers, and to de-emphasize their genocide, is not a technical necessity but an ideological choice. It serves—unwittingly—to justify what was done.

My point is not that we must, in telling history, accuse, judge, condemn Columbus in absentia. It is too late for that; it would be a useless scholarly exercise in morality. But the easy acceptance of atrocities as a deplorable but necessary price to pay for progress (Hiroshima and Vietnam, to save Western civilization; Kronstadt and Hungary, to save socialism; nuclear proliferation, to save us all)—that is still with us. One reason these atrocities are still with us is that we have learned to bury them in a mass of other facts, as radioactive wastes are buried in containers in the earth. We have learned to give them exactly the same proportion of attention that teachers and writers often give them in the most respectable of classrooms and textbooks. This learned sense of moral proportion, coming from the apparent objectivity of the scholar, is accepted more easily than when it comes from politicians at press conferences. It is therefore more deadly.” (p. 9)

Schweikart, L., & Allen, M. (2004). A patriot’s history of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the war on terror. New York, NY: Sentinel. “The five‐hundred‐year anniversary of Columbus’s discovery was marked by unusual and strident controversy. Rising up to challenge the intrepid voyager’s courage and vision—as well as the establishment of European civilization in the New World—was a crescendo of damnation, which posited that the Genoese navigator was a mass murderer akin to Adolf Hitler.

Even the establishment of European outposts was, according to the revisionist critique, a regrettable development. Although this division of interpretations no doubt confused and dampened many a Columbian festival in 1992, it also elicited a most intriguing historical debate: did the esteemed Admiral of the Ocean Sea kill almost all the Indians? A number of recent scholarly studies have dispelled or at least substantially modified many of the numbers generated by the anti‐Columbus groups, although other new research has actually increased them.” (pp. 7–8)

Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Primary sources are first-hand accounts of a historical event, usually written at the time the event occurred, by somebody who was somehow involved in the event.

Secondary sources are second-hand accounts of a historical event, usually (but not necessarily) written after the event occurred, by somebody who was not involved in the event. The secondary source uses collections of primary sources to build an interpretation of the event.

Tertiary sources are historical accounts that usually summarize existing secondary sources, such as encyclopedias, dictionaries, and websites such as history.com, ushistory.org, and heritage.org. These sources are not authoritative sources, because there is little or no peer review process and because the authors of tertiary sources usually engage in no primary source research. Historians may look to websites such as Wikipedia to check facts like names or dates, but they do not rely on them for scholarly historical interpretations. While you will not be analyzing tertiary sources in this course, it is helpful for you to know what they are.

Perspectives: Primary, Secondary, and Tertiary Sources

Take a look at some primary, secondary, and tertiary sources related to making the decision to drop the atomic bomb over the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

First, skim this letter written by Harry S. Truman, who was the President of the United States during the time the decision was made to drop the atomic bomb. This is a primary source. Even though this letter was written in 1953, years after the historical event, it is a primary source because Truman was a participant in making the decision to drop the bomb, and the letter contains Truman’s first-hand recollections of making the decision to drop the atomic bomb.

Second, skim this scholarly article about the decision to drop the atomic bomb. This is a secondary source because it is written by Louis Morton, a historian who was not involved with making the decision to use the atomic bomb. This secondary source uses records from Congressional hearings, books, memoirs, and articles published by first-hand participants, as well as memoranda and letters written by members of the military and Truman administration involved in making the decision to drop the bomb.

Finally, skim this webpage about making the decision to drop the atomic bomb. It is a tertiary source because it summarizes existing secondary sources without doing original primary source research and it has not been peer-reviewed.


Novick, P. (1988). That noble dream: The “objectivity question” and the American historical profession. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press. Retrieved from https://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=589160&site=eds-live&scope=site

Schweikart, L., & Allen, M. (2004). A patriot’s history of the United States: From Columbus’s Great Discovery to the war on terror. New York, NY: Sentinel.

Zinn, H. (2010). A people’s history of the United States. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.


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