Change Versus Continuity

Historians speak fluently and often about the relationship over time between change and continuity. Some historians spend entire careers spanning decades looking at one period of time in the past and debating with other historians (past and present, and also future) about how much had really changed.

As an Advanced Placement United States History instructor, I was urged to have my students consider such “historiography.” Many of the questions on AP US History exams were differing versions about how had changed and how much had stayed the same in crucial time periods such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, or the “Roaring Twenties. This “change versus continuity” dialectic is central to the study of history, and American historians have waged savage wars in print arguing one side or the other. It is what professors do, it would seem.

So at the end of a unit on the American Revolution or the Civil War I would have students make a pamphlet where they would identify what had changed and what had not changed after an era had ended, and whether there was more one than the other. I would stress that after all the learning about the American Revolution or Civil War, this was the final and most important step for a historian. It was to finally assess what had really taken place in history.

My students never really got the point. They felt the assignment was too much like “busy work.” Or maybe by that time they were just so tired of and exhausted by the historical period in question that they could not be bothered any more by it. Or maybe their minds were too young to go that extra intellectual distance to see the deeper questions involved.

But most adults also care more about the events of history itself than the historiography. Maybe this is a poignant lesson in why “academic” history is not interesting to all but a very tiny number of persons usually located in universities. Historians writing for other historians while being ignored by almost everyone else.

But I still forced my students to make these “change versus continuity” brochures a couple of times during the year.