Evaluating Historical Thinking

History is something that has always fascinated me. Learning about figures and events of the past, reviewing books and maps about those who once were, and drawing parallels from then to today… All of these actions beckoning to my childhood. I can distinctly recall how I was one of the very few–if only–children in my 5th grade elementary class that eagerly awaited for Mr. Johanson to pull out the Social Studies textbook that had American patriots marching across the front cover, referencing the American Revolutionary War. It brought me much joy to read and hear about the tales of the past and the progression of events that culminated in my being placed right there in that seat.

I’m sure there are many people today who can relate to the feelings expressed in the opening paragraph. Today, I have a much different view of history than I did in the 5th grade, though the passion has certainly remained. The one thing that I was missing from that 5th grade social studies class–and the one thing I often encounter daily as missing from the general populace who are interested in history–that was unbeknownst to me was the very thing that makes “doing” history so much more fun, enriching, and engaging: historical thinking. At that age, I was merely consuming history by reading biographies and dates, constructing mental pictures of a linear progression of factoids. What I was not doing was actually thinking about the greater implications of those factoids and the grand narrative placed before me with a, now recognizably, conspicuous patriot depicting the expectation set for me.

This idea of “thinking historically,” though it has been present for many years,¹ has not been easily inducted into public school curricula in our day. As a result, the idea that students can think like an historian and utilize the skills of one who studies the past in a modern context is seldom advocated. Thus, I want to discuss here, briefly, what historical thinking is, why it is important, how to encourage it, and how this concept changes across cultural boundaries.

Thinking historically

Historians are not mere repositories of facts that comprise the being of human existence. Historians are members of the community that seek to understand the past in ways relevant to their audiences so as to expand on the human experience. To delve into the past in a way that is understandable and, more importantly, allows us to make accurate interpretations of what once was, we have developed several means of deducing a level of accuracy so as to impart knowledge in good faith. Typically referred to as the “Historical Method,” historians engage in an active process of investigating sources and constructing pictures of different periods of time, “searching for evidence among primary sources to a mystery that can never be completely solved.” Key to this historical method is the concept of historical thinking, the framework and tools one uses to think about the past and critically engage with source materials.

Sam Wineburg describes historical thinking as a strategy for engaging with evidence of the past to support our claims and narrative interpretations. This typically involves:

  • Sourcing – Thinking about the author(s), their background, and why was the document/item created
  • Contextualization – Situating the document in its relative time/place position
  • Close reading – Considering the language of the item
  • Using background knowledge – As part of contextualization, using other sources of information to further understand the item under study
  • Reading the silences – Recognizing what is not being said or even who is not talking
  • Corroborating – Locating where this item agrees/disagrees with other contemporary items

With each of these steps, we can dive further and further into researching a document or item. Context, the placing of the source into a wider fabric of understanding, is the key to thinking historically. We must not only recognize that everything has a context, but we must be cognizant of searching it out when studying the past. When learning about the context, we are supporting narratives with evidence. If we boil it down even more, we can consider historical thinking to be the process of understanding how people thought in the past.

WHY THINK HISTORICALLY?

Calling back to the opening memory of mine, one could reason that if I was not originally taught to think historically about the information being presented me, was it of any importance? When one understands the very context that led to my neglect of teaching me this concept, we can get a better picture of why it is still largely neglected in places of education. Calling back to Sam Wineburg, he argues that historical thinking is an “unnatural act” in that it is a constructed way of thinking that is not innate to us as human beings and the development of our cognitive processes.² And yet, without the development of historical thinking, we’ve created a situation in where there is a lack of enthusiasm for studying the past as teaching history has devolved into a simple regurgitation of facts about dates and events, stripping the interpretative process and “moral meaning,” as Dr. Lendol Calder put it.

Combined with the professionalization of teaching careers (or perhaps more accurately, “commercialization”) that has now precluded the professional historian from being a “public intellectual” and the increasing demands of teachers to meet predetermined standards for students as driven by the market place,³ it is no wonder that the grounds for developing the seemingly unnatural act of historical thinking are infertile in education systems.

But these circumstances undermine the value of developing the ability to think historically. The study of history allows us to engage with the past in a way that helps us to understand our contemporary relationships. Just like how we know more about our family and friends than their date of birth or phone number, studying history with a cultivated sense of positionality and relation to the past fosters a deeper understanding of how things came to be the way they are and where things will potentially go in the future. As the title of Lower Brule Sioux historian Nick Estes’ book aptly asserts, Our History is the Future.

By thinking historically, we can actually become familiar with actors of the past and gain a better understanding of what circumstances produced certain events. Furthermore, developing the ability to critically engage with sources and adequately contextualize them equips students to better engage with contemporary works in an age filled with unending data streams and constant flooding reports of the latest news. The increased globalization and further steps into the digital age have reasserted the practicality of thinking like an historian, a practice no longer relegated to the depths of academia, inaccessible by the public. The problem now is administering effective instruction in these ways as the status quo has sought to discourage this mentality, for it is not always conducive to a national agenda. The irony is that while many contend that history should be neutral, void of politics, and stripped of emotion, the actual act of “doing” history involves everything but those notions. Thinking historically is an act of resistance, an act of integrity, and an act of validation.

ENCOURAGING HISTORICAL THINKING

In order to affirm the importance of historical thinking and instill it as a regular part of the process of engaging with history, we need “to stop believing that learning history should be equated to learning one historical narrative.” The reality is that the memory I have of social studies was exactly that: the teaching of one narrative, designed to be consumable for someone in the 5th grade, priming me to be a unit in the larger sector of the society I resided in. While history is comprised of narratives, there are rarely (read: none) grand narratives that are accurate. Part of thinking historically means recognizing the nuance inherent in all situations. Historians love nuance, for that is what breathes life into the otherwise roteness of our careers.

To encourage historical thinking, we must not only work to see through the eyes of those of the past. We must work to see through the eyes of students and our audiences today. If historical thinking is an unnatural act, we must give the benefit of the doubt to those not experienced with a more analytical and disciplinary approach to studying history. We cannot assume others know what we know, to enact the training that might be second-hand to us now. We have to get on their level and work from there.

We must also see that thinking historically is more than just further consideration of details for facts. It involves a collaborative process between the researcher/student/teacher/person and the source material. It involves an in-depth look into what is being studied and this is not done hastily. We need to move beyond the identifying of sources as mere documents or objects–these things relate to the past, often our own past, and encourage empathy, something that most today might encourage you to drop when it comes to studying history. Yes, rather than “getting our feelings out” of history, we need to include them! The aforementioned steps of how to think historically are meant to push one toward further research, to observe multiple perspective, to analyze the background of a period/item, and to synthesize its place both in its relative time period and in the greater scheme of our world today.

CULTURAL CONTEXTS TO THINKING HISTORICALLY

Much of the material cited here was imparted to me during my course. There is might insight to gain and I find much of the information applicable, but I couldn’t help seeing where it falls short outside of a Western context. As noted by Lévesque, the circumstances of our world today have altered our perception of the past and how we interact with it, including a transition in Western countries to one of migration and globalization from a period of colonial policies and imperialistic endeavors.4

The development of thinking historically is unnatural, as asserted by Sam Wineburg. Yet, I feel as though this conclusion is founded on how we have developed this act in a setting where the modern citizens of these nation-states are detached from the history that almost entirely informed their identity. As an Indigenous person, my experience with “history” and studying the past runs deep as even the modern day NDN (read: Indian) contends with concepts of traditioneity, Indigeneity, Indianness, and other forms of identity. History is a key element for Indigenous Peoples as many cement our present identity in our perceptions of who and where we come from, rather than using our current identity to reflect on who and where we came from. As such, this binary presented in the material of a “familiarity” and “strangeness” with the past, concepts understood as impacting how we think historically by identifying our temporal proximity to what we’re studying, is problematic in that it does not account for cultures that would place themselves on a different axis as opposed to a linear spectrum presented by a binary.

These sources push notions of balancing ourselves in a place where we are neither overly passionate so as to distort the history we seek to present as verified by what we might consider evidence or so distant as to considered ourselves removed and thus simply stating facts at face value. Rather, though, many Indigenous Peoples would see a more distinguished placement in the material as painting the full picture that a Western historian desires to capture. The balance is necessary, but this approach leaves room to argue for the converse either way of being too involved or not involved enough, creating a perpetual conflict of the binary. We should focus on exploring both ends–and the multiplicity of ends–when we understand that this balance can be struck in more ways than just the middle.

Is thinking historically unnatural? For many, yes. But I contest that it is only unnatural insofar as we continue to live in unnatural ways.

QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER

After this analysis, I am left with some questions to consider myself. While I think the previous discussion provides much to ponder on what could answer these questions, I will frame them as specific to me and my potential future.

Probably the most pressing to me at this moment is whether or not historical thinking can further break the confines of Western notions of doing history. While I think much how we do history today has gotten to a point where it is inclusive and diversified, under what guises do we still operate that mare our view of the past?

Furthermore, how do we move this out of the classroom and out of the sparing ring of the politicized world for use in daily life as a means of introspection and engagement with the general public? Though we can make the arguments of how we can use these tools daily, they are contingent on our interaction with the world as is. What of the world beyond? Can we look to the world before to better understand how history was placed for the benefit of a society as opposed to a defensive capability to guard against misinformation today?

And finally, on a more practical note, how can we use historical thinking to further these discussions inside the classroom, but outside of a standard history class? In other words, how do we cement historical thinking as a standard epistemological practice? Of course, this comes through encouragement of this practice and teaching of its value, but how can we translate that value to others who might not share the same perspective of that value?

I hope to answer these questions more fully as I progress through this course.

Footnotes

1. Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 14.

2. Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” The Phi Delta Kappan 80, no. 7. March 1999, 488-499.

3. Stéphane Lévesque, Thinking Historically (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2008), 12.

4. Ibid. 5

About the author

Kyle

View all posts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.