A Student's Guide to the Study of History

Book cover: 'A Student's Guide to the Study of History'
John Lukacs
ISI Books
Number of pages: 
49 pages
Grade / Age level: 
Resource Type: 

It is hard to believe that such skinny little books can pack such a wallop. That is what you find in this series by ISI (Intercollegiate Studies Institute) books.

From the opening pages, you gain a sense of the personal; you feel that you have picked the brain of your favorite professor over your beverage of choice, as he elaborates on his favorite subject. Since it is a professor speaking, he does not merely "tell" you his opinion, he speaks with academic authority, in both his level of language and the conviction of having taught this for many years.

Since the book addresses the importance of studying, anyone (either high school student, parent/teacher), who is interested in studying history would profit from reading this.

In this student guide, the topic is history. Having recently read several student guides to history, it has become apparent to me that each professor has his own view of what makes history. In this book, Lukacs begins with a "description," not a "definition" of history. Lukacs differs from some historians in that he believes that history includes both the remembered as well as the recorded past. Since he believes that everyone has a contributing role to history and not just significant people or important events, he has a rather broad view of history.

In discussing how only the past is included in history and not the present or the future, Lukacs quotes Soren Kierkegaard. "We live forward, but we can only think backward."

Lukacs goes on to describe the history of history. He begins by explaining the difference between human beings and other living creatures and how only humans have a sense of history. He then goes on to talk about some of our oldest historical records are found in the Old and New Testament. In doing so, he makes some interesting arguments for Christianity. The section alone makes the book priceless.

From there, he discusses other historians throughout time, such as Polybius, and Plutarch. He also distinguishes between chroniclers and historians. He clarifies how the meanings of words, such as barbarian, have changed over time.

In the next section, he shows the development of the "professional historian".

Under the chapter "the methods of history," he stresses how important it is to know how to read in order to study history. By this, he does not mean phonics!

There may be some debate as to what comprises the study of history. Usually, however, historians agree on what are considered the classics in history. In the last chapter, Lukacs recommends various titles the student should read for each period of time. Keeping in mind that the audience for this book is college-age, some of these recommended texts might not be appropriate in their entirety for high school students, because of the sexual references; in particular, Herodotus'Histories and Plutarch's Lives.

I appreciate his footnote that "there can be no good historian who cannot write well." He adds, "Writing well means thinking well." In fact, there are numerous statements throughout the book that I am tempted to highlight: thought-provoking statements for the reader to ponder.

At times, the language can become a bit academic-sounding, and Lukacs likes to get off on tangents; but if the reader sticks with it, he will arrive at the author's point of view and find the wait worthwhile. Altogether, this book not only offers a good list of books to consider reading, but also offers a good explanation of of what is needed to study well: to read and think critically and express one's thoughts intelligently in writing. All this is packed in a mere 49 pages.

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