On Monday, the country celebrates George Washington’s birthday, our first president. If bodies didn’t decay, he would be 289 years old today. But you might ask, why write about Washington for a blog during Black History Month? Today, we’ll use his birthday to commemorate a different group of people who lived at his Mount Vernon estate: the men and women he enslaved.
At the time of his death, 317 enslaved men and women lived at Mount Vernon. While he did put it in his will to free the people he owned upon his death, this did not mean those 317 were emancipated when he left this life. More than half of those slaves, under his wife’s estate, remained in bondage.
Washington is a complicated person. He was an enslaver. He even wrote down that physical force (beating and whipping) was perfectly acceptable if a slave needed to be prodded to work harder. Weirdly, he also wrote in a 1786 letter to Robert Morris, “I can only say that there is not a man living who wishes more sincerely than I do, to a see a plan adopted for the abolition of it [slavery].” Whatever his internal will actually was in reference to this statement, his actions don’t help him.
When President George Washington resided in Philadelphia, he brought some of the people he enslaved with him. One of those, Ona Judge, was Martha’s maid and seamstress. In the years of living among the free black population in Philadelphia, she was inspired to become free, and so as the Washington’s packed to go home to Mount Vernon for the summer in 1796, she packed for her escape. Eventually fleeing to New Hampshire, Washington pursued her for 3 years, offering rewards for her capture and even sending someone to New Hampshire to “convince her” to come back. She didn’t. She remained a fugitive for the rest of her life. Against the wishes of her enslaver, Washington, she chose freedom.
Other than Judge’s story, which is well documented in Erica Armstrong Dunbar’s Never Caught: The Washingtons’ Relentless Pursuit of Their Runaway Slave, Ona Judge, many of the lives of the enslaved at Mount Vernon are not well known. However, if you have the chance to visit Mount Vernon today, you will see a strong effort by the estate to highlight the lives of the enslaved. There are tours dedicated to their hardships, there are replicas of their bleak slave quarters, and most moving, archeologists are currently excavating the enslaved community’s cemetery to properly document graves and pay appropriate homage to those who lived and died on Washington’s plantation.
Three years ago when I visited, my students and I walked the long path down the hill from the Washington mansion to the slave cemetery. We sat, read some of the markers, and took it in. Then, a reenactor, dressed in 18th century clothing, began playing the ute. After playing some songs that were clearly from Washington’s era, he asked the crowd to join in singing the next song with him, if they knew it.
He began to play Amazing Grace. Of course, the author of the hymn, John Newton, wrote it after becoming a Christian and repenting of his involvement in the slave trade. There couldn’t have been a more perfect song. It brought me to tears.
For centuries, the graves of the enslaved at the Mount Vernon estate have largely been silent. Moments like that gave them a voice.
The creators of the United States Constitution set out on a difficult task. In creating a document to unify thirteen new states, while at the same time upholding those states’ sovereignty, the founders could not escape an inherent tension. Specifically, the issue of slavery coupled with the ideal of equality could hardly be reconciled.
In its preamble, the Constitution illuminates several actions of the “People of the United States” as a foundation to “form a more perfect Union.” Some of these actions are to “establish Justice, “insure domestic Tranquility,” “promote the general Welfare,” and “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.” This foundation upon which the rest of the document lays upon forces several questions: What is justice and for whom? Who is able to experience tranquility? Who falls under ‘general welfare’? Who’s liberty is secured?
Eventually, the nation’s stain of slavery would drip across this entire foundation and cause the Civil War.
Slavery is addressed three times in the 1787 Constitution. In Article I, Section 2, enslaved people are counted as “three fifths” of a person in regards to representation. This compromise kept southern states from garnering too much political power as they could have had if their vast slave population fully counted toward the amount of delegates they were allotted for the House of Representatives. In section 9 of the same article, the legal importation of slaves was given an end date, 1808.
Lastly, in Article IV, section 2, the Constitution stated that “No Person held to Service or Labour in one state, under the Laws thereof, escaping to another, shall… be discharged from such Service or Labour.” Known as the fugitive slave clause, this vague principle protected slaveholders’ right to pursue and retrieve an escaped slave, even if the fugitive made it to a state where slavery was abolished. It is in this last article that the preamble is put to the test. What was justice to a free-state may not be justice to the slave-state; likewise, “domestic Tranquility” could turn into domestic distrust if citizens within differing states chose not to cooperate. These inconsistencies between preamble goals and actual governance weakened America’s foundation.
Despite this visible crack in the new nation’s foundation, it appears that the framers of the Constitution saw no other way forward. They believed that abolishing slavery in the whole nation was out of the question if each of the states was expected to sign the Constitution. Not only did the southern states explicitly build their economy off of the backs of slaves, but as Thomas Jefferson noted, “for tho’ their [the northern] people have very few slaves themselves yet they had been pretty considerable carriers of them to others.” The colonies had built an economy with slavery at its core, and if they wanted to create a new constitution in 1787, calling for slavery’s abolition was inconceivable to them.
Herein lies the deep paradox of our Constitution. Yes, as we at Thinking Nation believe, the principles of the U.S. Constitution are strong and enduring. We would do well as a country to adhere to them. Still, the Constitution is not sacred. It had significant flaws that deprived millions of Americans their personhood and allowed slavery to not simply continue, but to expand in the 70 years after it was signed. If we want to praise the principles of government outlined in our Constitution, we must, as many before us, condemn the errors that prioritized white compromises at the expense of black bodies.
Mirrors provide people the ability to get an accurate picture of themselves. Knowing that people are products of their pasts—personal and communal—the past acts as a mirror for those living in the present. This is not only true for the average person seeking to understand his or herself more fully, but also for historians who seek to make the people they study more fully understood. Understanding the past helps us to better understand the present. If we can situate ourselves among those who have come before us, we can better understand why things got to be the way they are. This question, “How did we get here?” has surely been on many of our minds lately.
In 1884, as Jim Crow laws overtook American life, the great abolitionist, writer, and orator, Frederick Douglass, reflected on this idea of historical memory. In a speech he reminded his listeners:
While it is well to attend to the issues of the present and to look hopefully forward to the future, it is well not to forget the past. Memory was given to man for some wise purpose. The past is in some sense the mirror in which we may discern the dim outlines of the future and by which we may make them more symmetrical.
Many of us want to understand where we should go next. We want to be changemakers in our local communities and our nation at large. At Thinking Nation, we believe that one of the most often overlooked ways to do this is by studying the past. But as Douglass reminds us, when we use the past as a mirror, “we may discern the dim outlines of the future.” When we know where we’ve come from, we are better equipped to steer the ship moving forward. May we pause. May we reflect. May we remember.
First, let’s recognize the mundane, yet momentous occasion that happened this week: The Inauguration. Of course, I use mundane lightly, as the ceremony was emotion-filled for so many people. If you missed Amanda Gorman’s poem, I encourage you to listen to her heartfelt summary of America and American opportunity. Back in October, our blog addressed how the Constitution ensures the peaceful transfer of power. Of course, with the invasion of our Capitol earlier this month, it was not as peaceful as it should have been, but still, Wednesday’s inauguration was ceremonial and a new president took the oath of office (Read it here! (End of Section I) It’s straight from Article II of the Constitution). Power was transferred and our republic moves forward.
For this (long) blog, though, I want to address a document that was released on Monday by the Trump administration: “The 1776 Report” by The President’s Advisory 1776 Commission. Yes, it is true, as early as Thursday morning, the Biden administration has already removed the report from whitegouse.gov. This means that one of President Biden’s first acts was to revoke the commission. It’s gone. But it’s not.
The sentiments laid out in the 1776 report do not simply die with the presidency that commissioned it, and so, I think it is important for us to understand what it was asking of educators across the country.
First, as one might expect with an American history report coming from the Trump administration, it received a lot of pushback, especially from academic historians. One reason is that there were no academic historians on the commission itself. One historian from Princeton, Kevin Kruse, demonstrated the skewed picture the report, released on MLK Day, painted of Martin Luther King, Jr. James Grossman, president of the American Historical Association (AHA), commented that the report was “a hack job. It’s not a work of history,” and “It’s a work of contentious politics designed to stoke culture wars.” In fact, the AHA published a statement condemning the report that was then signed by 33 other professional historical associations.
The 1776 report was the Trump Administration’s attempt to counter last year’s “1619 Project,” published by the New York Times, which sought to center America’s hand in slavery into American history. The 1619 Project mostly received praise, with a few exceptions from certain prominent scholars. Analysis of the Project deserves a series of blog posts, so any thoughts on it will be spared from this post.
Today’s blog serves as Thinking Nation’s comment on the 1776 Commission’s Report. The U.S. Constitution, and its principles, are at the heart of our curriculum, and since the 1776 Commission claims the same, it is important to acknowledge both alignment to and departure from our goals for the history classroom.
First, in the introduction, the report states that its purpose is to “enable a rising generation to understand the history and principles of the founding of the United States in 1776 and to strive to form a more perfect Union.” Honestly, beyond the thinly veiled jab at the 1619 Project with the reference to 1776, this purpose seems hard to refute. At Thinking Nation, we want to cultivate thinking citizens and embed Constitutional principles into our historical thinking curriculum. Its intended purpose states the same. Furthermore, the report notes that “To learn this history is to become a better person, a better citizen, and a better partner in the American experiment of self-government.” Partisan squabbles aside, I know of few history teachers would disagree with this statement. Many of us echoed this same sentiment loudly in the aftermath of January 6th’s insurrection. “Our country needs civics,” we cried. “Fund history education!” So far, 1776 Report, so good.
However, the report continuously contends that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” Here, they argue that their report does not have partisan aims, but seeks that “Educators should teach an accurate history of how the permanent principles of America’s founding have been challenged and preserved since 1776.” But who determines what is accurate or which principles are permanent? Surely, a 45 page report cannot summarize an accurate American History? And it doesn’t.
While the 1776 Report claims not to be partisan and to present an accurate view of the past, it cannot honestly reflect on its presentation and come to the conclusion that it lived up to its aims. The report lumps early 20th century “Progressivism” with Slavery, Communism, and Fascism as a “Challenge to America’s Principles.” Of course, since Progressivism is a vital part of American history that has undoubtedly led to needed reform, it is clear that there is a conservative bent to this report. If progressivism is a challenge, then conservatism is the remedy, logic would have it. Partisanship is therefore central to the 1776 report, despite it claiming that “States and school districts should reject any curriculum that promotes one-sided partisan opinions…” Then it might need to reject large swaths of its own report.
There are a slew of historical inaccuracies and evidence-less claims in the report, in fact so many that I spent just as much time annotating the report as I did reading it. But for this blog, let’s continue to focus on big ideas. The last aspect of the report that deserves attention is its answering of these two fundamental questions: What is history? (Our first blog post) and What is the purpose of history education?
Revisiting a quote cited above, the report claims that “The facts of our founding are not partisan. They are a matter of history.” This of course implies a certain definition of history: Past facts = history. But as we demonstrated in our first blog, history is not merely the past: it is the interpretation of the past. Any historian would acknowledge that interpretations can differ, and that is ok. So when a report that bases its entire foundation on history claims that facts are simply “a matter of history,” they narrow our view of a profound and complex discipline. Shortchanging the meaning of history is great for propagandizing a partisan agenda but not so great for illuminating a complex past.
As to history’s purpose, the report states that “educators must convey a sense of enlightened patriotism that equips each generation with a knowledge of America’s founding principles, a deep reverence for their liberties, and a profound love of their country.” But history education, even civics education, should not be reduced this way. Understanding is the chief goal of any education, but here, the report claims that “a profound love of their country,” is the measure of success. Now, there should be no problem if someone arrives at that love of country through historical and civic study. A case can even be made that it is healthy. But it is not the purpose. History education is not a Sunday sermon, cultivating a particular belief system and fostering devotion to that system. It may have some of the same byproducts as said sermon, but one should not equate the two. Perhaps the simplest rebuttal to the prescribed purpose of education in the 1776 Report is this simple reminder: Our job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. While the report pays lip service to this phrase throughout the 45 pages, it blatantly defies this purpose with its own goals.
The 1776 report claims to offer an “accurate” presentation of history. It fails. While it has certain characteristics that are worth commending, as a whole, it falls far short of its own aspirations. By doubling-down on partisan rhetoric and old views of history that prioritize America’s “greatness” over America’s complexity, it has no place in a history classroom where we want students to think historically, interrogate the historical record, and be equipped to draw evidence-based conclusions. Even though the report itself has been revoked, it’s skewed view of American history will continue to be applauded in many political and educational circles in the coming years. These views are not new. Thus, it is important to engage with them.
We believe that in order for democracy to thrive, we must cultivate thinking citizens. But the 1776 Report, or the skewed view of history it presents, is not the way to do this.
A few weeks ago, our blog focused on providing a refresher on the Bill of Rights, that is, the first 10 Amendments to the U.S. Constitution. The First Amendment is where we get the “Freedom of Speech.” This freedom has been invoked frequently in the days since the January 6th insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, so we thought it would be prudent to review this amendment and its protections in more detail.
First, let’s read the 1st Amendment in its entirety: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”
There is a lot packed into this sentence, so let’s abbreviate to focus on our topic for today: “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech…”
Let’s look a little closer. Who is the subject? Congress. And what can’t Congress do? Make a law that abridges freedom of speech. This is key, The Constitutional protections of freedom of speech involve potential infringements of speech by the federal government.
Here, it is important to note that private companies are not bound by the U.S. Constitution to uphold the freedom of speech. The First Amendment only protects against government suppression of speech and government censorship.
In the past week, many have protested major social media companies for banning President Trump’s accounts. Often, the people protesting this action decry it as denying the freedom of speech. However, as shown above, this freedom is meant to be a protection against the government, not private companies. Private companies are well within their rights to dictate the terms of using their platforms (i.e. their “terms and conditions”), and if those terms are violated, they can freeze or ban an account. There are many laws that influence private business practices, however, the Bill of Rights is not one of them.
At Thinking Nation, we think it is incredibly important to make this distinction. We hold the Constitution highly and believe it to be the bedrock of our democracy. With that said, we also believe that misrepresentation of our nation’s founding document can harm that very democracy. When we misuse the Constitution, especially when seeking our own benefit, we put a cloud over the intentions of our nation’s founders and weaken our own country’s foundation.
In this contentious time in American history, let’s cling to the principles outlined by our Constitution. May we not detract from their potency on one hand, and may we not make them to be more than they were meant to be on the other.
2020 was quite a year. The U.S. Constitution was invoked throughout it. In an impeachment trial, rules relating to pandemic response, how to bring about true racial equality, appointing Supreme Court Justices, what to do when a sitting president refuses to concede a lost election, how to navigate an “omnibus bill” passed by Congress, and surely the list goes on. Each of these events both relate to and involve average citizens and thus, our ability to navigate our nation’s founding document directly relates to our ability to properly navigate our current circumstances. It is with this in mind that Thinking Nation integrates Constitutional literacy into all of our DBQs. This way, students can not only think critically about the past, but can be more informed and engaged citizens in our democracy.
Knowing the Constitution and internalizing its principles affects us far more than we realize. When we feel like Congress is at a stand still, where can we go to better understand the origins of this gridlock? The Constitution. When the President takes legislative matters into his own hands, how can we challenge it? Cite the Constitution. When voting rights are infringed upon, what is cited to defend the votes of all Americans? The Constitution. When we feel like free speech or the freedom of the press is being suppressed, where do we turn? The Constitution. We probably even quote or paraphrase the Constitution (unfortunately sometimes out of context) more than we even realize it. It is not only the nation’s founding document, it is a document that guides the political and public lives of that nation’s citizens.
In short, the Constitution is the foundation of American democracy and American citizenship. Therefore, we believe that part of making students engaged and informed citizens is familiarizing them with the Constitution. However, since our historical thinking curriculum stems far beyond the history of the United States, connecting it to the Constitution happens in two distinct ways.
Second, for World History DBQs, we want to demonstrate that the Constitution was not created in a vacuum. It is attached to a much longer history than itself, inspired by the past in what it should and should not be as a governing document.
In sum, the Constitution is connected to each of the DBQ tasks within this curriculum: as a product of the past, a contextualizing document for U.S. History, and a guide for how to ensure the success of the American experiment. In this way, we hope to simultaneously equip students with a Constitutional literacy as we equip students to think historically. In the end, we hope to cultivate thinking citizens who can reflect on the past, navigate the present, and better our future.
Happy New Year! 2021 could not have come soon enough.
I do, unfortunately, have to be the bearer of bad news. Simply because the calendar changes does not mean that the problems that encompassed 2020 just completely end. Realistically, we must remember 2020 in order to make 2021 a better year. Yes, like any historian out there will tell you, here’s my reminder: we must reflect on the old in order to usher in the new.
As a teacher, I would make a bold claim to my students (that I’m sure would work for any subject with an educator passionate about their discipline, but it was still fun). I would tell them that history is everywhere in your life. You cannot escape it and you use it every day to make your own decisions without even knowing it. Trying to make the importance of history that much more real to them I told them to challenge me. They could give me any aspect/event/circumstance in their lives, and I would tell them how history is an integral part of whatever it is they shared. I would get a slew of answers. “My dog died.” “I take the bus home from school.” “My best friend’s name is _____.” “I’m an only child.” “I have 7 brothers and sisters.” “I love soccer.” and they continued. Each of my responses could fit into just a handful of categories: precedent, heritage, past research, and contextualization. Over time, the students who caught on would tell the more persistent students to stop trying. “Mr. Cote is obviously going to find a way to connect it to history,” they would say. History had won. Just like a mathematician can find numbers wherever they look, a historian sees the past in everything. As the American Historical Association’s Executive Director, James Grossman always reminds us: #everythinghasahistory.
Since everything has a history and knowing that history can better inform our present decisions, we must have an eye to the past if we want to make worthy New Year’s Resolutions. We have to look backward if we want to move forward. We have to reflect on where we’ve been if we want to see where we are going more clearly.
One of my favorite units to teach my 8th graders was on The Civil War. We would read the Graphic History Battle Lines, co-authored by historian Ari Kelman and graphic artist Jonathan Fetter-Vorm. In the last scene of the book, the authors leave the readers with a similar impression of the importance of the past. A train operator sits in the caboose and tells the young worker next to him, “Nine out of ten people say the engine’s the most important part of the train. Truth is, It’s the hearse that matters most. We’re the ones who watch the train. It’s only us who can tell if she’s missed a switch. Or has a mind to jump track. And we ain’t so busy stoking the fire, trying to make time, that we can’t take a moment to look out the back. If only to mark where it is we’re coming from.”
As we move forward into a new year, don’t be too busy trying to “stoke the fire” and move forward that you forget to look back. We cannot celebrate what’s to come until we’ve pondered what’s come before.
Last week, we explored just how important it is to be guided by evidence. When evidence guides our thinking, we can draw better conclusions that stand strong amidst the ebbs and flows of the current moment. Following the evidence means ascribing oneself to a particular intellectual humility that is willing to hold fact above fiction and evidence above ego. Following the evidence makes discourse richer, exploration more enjoyable, and arguments more concrete. History, and specifically thinking historically, is grounded on the importance of evidence. This is why Thinking Nation’shistorical thinking curriculum places such an emphasis on teaching students how to engage with the documents of the past. This way, they too can follow the evidence.
Unlike other academic disciplines, history does not demand that findings fit within a particular theory or ideology. Rather, historians seek to present the most accurate picture of the past. This effort must be rooted in facts and evidence. Sure, as all human beings, historians have biases. Historians make arguments, and depending on their own opinions of the past and present, facts can be used differently to make particular claims. Still, the study of the past is nothing without evidence.
If you’ve ever spent any time in the notes section of a historical book, you know just how dependent historians are on facts and evidence. I’ve seen many times where the notes section of a book is over 1/3 of the entire book’s page length! This tells us more about the importance of evidence than we might initially perceive.
When historians include such a rich database of evidence, they are demonstrating that their arguments are not merely opinions. Rather, they have a robust foundation to support their claims and they make sure that anyone who would like to review that evidence knows where it comes from. Just as they seek to contextualize the past, their citations contextualize their argument.
We know that a house built on sand won’t weather a storm. It needs to be built on rock. The notes of a historical book are that rock. Evidence is the foundation of historical study. To try to build an argument without a sturdy foundation is to arrogantly believe that what you build on your own can stand the test of other arguments and the test of time. However, building arguments on the foundation of evidence is to humbly acknowledge that an argument is only as good as its foundation. When evidence is the foundation, we can be more open to new ideas, arguments, and conclusions. Learning is moved forward. Knowledge avoids the stagnation brought on by arrogance. The past is presented accurately and sets the tone for us to accurately seek out the best way to live our present.
Historical thinking is integral to the discipline of history, but the skills it entails transcend the discipline. When our students learn how to root themselves in the evidence, they can be the change makers we so often yearn for them to be.
On the last day of the 1787 Constitutional Convention, the elder statesman Benjamin Franklin wrote a short speech for a fellow Pennsylvania delegate to read on his behalf. As simple as it was, we would be hard pressed to find any political figure saying something similar today. When reflecting on his own opinions of the Constitution, he wrote, “For having lived long, I have experienced many instances of being obliged by better Information, or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise.” Here, Franklin acknowledges the importance of changing one’s mind, of ‘flip-flopping’. His sentiment of changing “Opinions even on important Subjects” is often demonized in our hyper-partisan and dogmatic political world. Yet, there is something profound in what he said. For Franklin, new evidence can procure new opinions.
A couple of years ago, I facilitated a Socratric Seminar in my 8th grade U.S. history class. Toward the end, one student said that while she at first thought that her perspective was right, she changed her mind by the end of the discussion. Many students called her out: “You can’t flip flop!” Her response mirrored Franklin’s. “Well, one student pointed out a piece of evidence I had not thought about and changed my mind,” she said. She was humble enough to allow the evidence, and not her own bias, drive her opinion. In this moment, she exemplified the job of the historian.
Historians must be guided by evidence. They must cultivate an intellectual humility that puts their own hopes about the past below the actual evidence. They must be willing to engage with new ideas when the evidence demands it. Lastly, they can argue their points with conviction, but also must be willing to hold them loosely enough should new evidence weaken their original claim. We emphasize this approach in our historical thinking curriculum. In a way, this is why historiography, which we covered in two past blog posts, exists (Read here and here ).
To drive this point home in my own classroom, I would often tell my students, “Your opinions don’t matter… unless you have evidence.” Students had to provide evidence for their claims in both their writing and discussions. Of course, at first students thought this was harsh. How could I give student’s a voice with statements like “Your opinions don’t matter”? But over the year (and years) students began to internalize the importance of evidence. In fact, I still get reports from their current high school teachers that they hold to this maxim in their writings and discussions.
As I look into the social and political landscape, I am disheartened by the blatant disregard of evidence. More and more, ideology supersedes facts, as if people believe that as long as their side is in charge, what actually happens does not matter. In this sea of disinformation that marks the present, we must remind ourselves of the importance of evidence. The study of history forces us to engage with evidence before we draw conclusions. We must collect, analyze, and use evidence effectively in order to make claims. Yes, this takes time, which our modern culture of reaction disproves of, but it’s foundation is far sturdier.
Next week, we will continue to explore the importance of evidence by looking at how professional historians hold themselves to evidence, but in the meantime may we practice the humility marked by Franklin’s words. May we be willing to change our minds if we encounter new evidence. May we listen to perspectives unlike our own, not so we can refute them, but so we can understand them and grow. After all, that is what learning is about, and evidence is at its foundation.
When Thinking Nation was still just an idea, a lot of our curriculum conversations centered on the U.S. Constitution. It is the foundation of our country and it is a living document that has guided government and citizens for over two centuries. Understanding it can help strengthen our democracy and instill a trust in its aims, even when we fail to meet those aims. Interpretable and amendable, critical analysis of the nation’s founding document can never stop. If we want to form a more perfect union, we must understand the document that serves as the foundation for that endeavor. One specific area that we should continuously refresh our knowledge of is the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the Constitution, ratified in 1791.
To contextualize the Bill of Rights, it is important to reread the purpose of the Constitution. The United States Constitution begins with this preamble: “We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.” With this sentence, the founders outlined their vision for America. The remainder of the Constitution, including the Bill of Rights, is an outline for how that vision should materialize.
The Bill of Rights was the founders’ written promise to posterity that the American government would protect the rights of its citizens. The 1st Amendment protects freedoms like religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petitioning the government. The 2nd Amendment protects the right to bear arms. The 3rd Amendment ensures that U.S. soldiers cannot take advantage of civilians’ homes. The 4th Amendment guards against unlawful searches and seizures. The 5th Amendment protects against self-incrimination and secures due process. The 6th Amendment ensures transparency through a speedy and public trial and provides defendants the right to have a lawyer. The 7th Amendment secures the right to a jury. The 8th Amendment shelters citizens from cruel and unusual punishments and excessive fines. The 9th Amendment even states that there are many other rights, not listed, that the government cannot take away. Lastly, to protect against an overpowering federal government, the 10th Amendment asserts that rights not delegated to the federal government are reserved for the states and the people.
In the Declaration of Independence, it states, “That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men.” That is the role of the government, to secure our rights. The Bill of Rights is an important reminder of this role and our duty to ensure that the government lives out its purpose.
Each year around Thanksgiving, there are numerous articles hoping to correct our understanding of the 1621 harvest feast between the pilgrims and the Wampanoag people. Rightly so, people want to complicate our understanding of a mythic past and set the record straight. Still, this obsession with correcting the vision of the feast may be missing the point of the day. Thanksgiving reminds us to be thankful, to show gratitude. We would do well to dwell on this over the historical inaccuracies of elementary plays and popular myth. (Still, you should google “real thanksgiving” if you public myths still dominate your conceptions of Thanksgiving).
In the 1700s, several American colonies declared “a public day of THANKSGIVING” in order for people to stop their routines, pray, and count their blessings. In fact, in 1789, George Washington even declared the first national thanksgiving, to take place on November 26 (same as this year!).
While such proclamations happened throughout our country’s history (perhaps most famously, by Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War, Congress did not make Thanksgiving a national federal Holiday until 1941. More than anything, rather than remembering the pilgrims, these days were reminders to show gratitude. Thus, in a simple way, remembering their purpose can hopefully drive us to gratitude this year, even amidst the host of unprecedented events we have endured in 2020.
When historians can humble themselves enough to enter into the shoes of the historical actors they study, they are better equipped to be thankful for their own circumstances. This of course, does not mean that history naturally progresses (it definitely does not), or that present circumstances are better than past circumstances. Rather, it acknowledges that humility allows for gratitude. When people show humility, they are more able to be grateful for what they do have. Humility implies that they may have or receive things they did not necessarily deserve, and are therefore grateful to have. In a sense, the road to gratefulness is paved with humility.
The discipline of history forces a type of humility that is hard to find in other areas of the academy. Rather than seeking to fit past events into a box, like many theory-driven disciplines hope to do, historians try to understand the events first. Without the need to properly place the past into a neat category, a more full expression of the past is illuminated. In this process, a deeper humility is cultivated. If the past does not align with present convictions, that is ok. We can disagree with past actions while still maintaining our quest to pursue historical accuracy. With no urgent need to use the past for present benefits, historians can humbly try to understand the past rather than co-opting it for a specific purpose or use. This intellectual humility can lead to an intellectual gratitude. We want to push for this intellectual humility with our historical thinking curriculum.
When humility drives inquiry, gratitude develops. Gratitude to be along the historical road with those before us. Gratitude for the opportunities to study. Here in the United States, gratitude to be in a country that allows us to critically examine our own past in order to deepen our own understandings. Gratitude to pursue a democracy knowing the shortcomings of the alternatives.
While it is easier to write about these areas of gratitude than to live in them, having a day of thanks, as commissioned by Presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, allows for deeper reflection. As we stop our normal routines in order to reflect on what we are thankful for, we can recognize the unique historical moment we live in, pursue the progress we long for, and be grateful for the things we have, know, and have experienced.
Last week, I introduced the term historiography. Simply, it means “the study of historical writing.” When historians try to understand how other historians have viewed and written about a certain historical event, they are exploring historiography. Historians do this to understand how their own research fits into the academic conversation. Usually, trends in historiography, like in history, are slow, shifting viewpoints over time. But occasionally, there are big “historiographical moments,” where trends are halted and rerouted.
One such example occurred in 1988 when Eric Foner published Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877. In it, he upended prevailing views of Reconstruction which saw it as a failure filled with corruption (and implicitly, a failure because black Americans received civil rights en masse). To be fair, back in 1935, W.E.B Du Bois made the same claim as Foner in his Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, but his views never gained traction in the academy. Before Foner’s book, few people questioned “The Dunning School” interpretation of Reconstruction which favored former Confederates and disparaged radical Republicans from the North. (In fact, even in 2008 in my High School U.S. history classroom, this was the narrative I was taught.) Foner’s book transformed the way that Reconstruction is presented by historians (the historiography).
We explored chronological historiography (how historical study has changed over time) last week. This week, I want to highlight competing historiographical views among contemporary historians and more practical implications of historiography. First, just like Protestant Christians can fall into thousands of denominations, but still be considered Christians in general, historians can hold to various conclusions about the past and still be credible historians. History isn’t simply “what happened” (as we noted in blog #1). Because different people study the past, different conclusions can be drawn. And despite whatever ideologues want people to believe, that is OK.
First, and most broadly, there are many different categories of history, some examples being: political, intellectual, economic, social, and cultural. These categories are the general approach that a historian takes to a particular historical era or event. For instance, a political biography of Abraham Lincoln might look very different from a social biography. (This is probably why there are over 15,000 books on him!) By having these different lenses for viewing the past, historians can focus their research and dive more into depth with their subjects. This allows historians to explore specific details of the past, and when combined together, build a more robust picture of the past.
Within these broader categories, there are often different schools of history. For instance, within economic history, one might see the work of marxist historians and those who favor capitalism. Because the nature of these economic systems widely differ from each other, the views of particular historical events between these schools can also vary. This does not necessarily mean that either perspective is wrong, but it is helpful to know the lens of a historian when you are reading their work. Depending on your own lens, you may be more likely to agree or disagree with their findings. In this sense, historiography can be a debate about the past.
In short, as a professor of mine put it, “historiography is a living, breathing thing that we imbibe.” It varies over time and across perspectives. While it may seem like an esoteric aspect of a university discipline, understanding historiography is more important than one might think. The next time you see societal changes based on history, recognize that this is practical historiography. When Columbus day is replaced by Indigenous People’s Day, that’s historiography. When Rodeo Road in Los Angeles became Obama Blvd, that’s historiography. When plantation tours in the South begin to elevate the lives of the enslaved (as Monticello has modeled so well), that is historiography. Historiography is all around us as we gain new insights, refine our own perspectives, and think through how the past impacts our present.
In my first blog post back in September, I hoped to answer the question “What is history?” Simply, it is the study and interpretation of the past. But what happens if you study that study? If you seek to understand the history of those interpretations? Well, enter historiography.
Historiography is the study of historical writing. It is one of my favorite aspects of history. You see, when a historian writes about the past, they don’t do so in a vacuum. Historians are shaped by the time and place they live in just as historical actors are shaped by their own historical context.
One example to illustrate the point can be seen in the wave of social history being written in the 1960s and 1970s. Until then, much of the discipline surrounded political and intellectual history, covering those in power in order to understand how nation-states and other institutions survived, prospered, or decayed. However, amidst the Civil Rights Movement, Vietnam War and resulting protests, and other social movements of the era, historians began to ask different questions. How did the lower class experience a particular event? How did women exercise agency when they lacked autonomy? What was life like for peasants? Questions like this, that looked at history from the bottom-up rather than the top-down, infiltrated the academy and in many ways revolutionized the way history was studied.
Examples like the one above can be seen throughout the centuries of historical study. The way a historian saw the founding of the United States in 1950 is, in many ways, different than the way historians see the founding today. Different cultural contexts, new evidence, and different lenses can all cause historians to view the same event differently. As historian John Fea writes, (and as I quoted in September 3’s blog… you can tell I like the quote!) “The past never changes, but history changes all the time.”
Unfortunately, historiography was a term I did not learn until my junior year in college, even as a history major! The study of historiography empowers students and historians to enter into decades-long (or even centuries-long!) conversations. It reveals the complexity of the past and that it is ok to arrive at different conclusions with the same data, as long as evidence is the driver. It highlights the truth that history is not stagnant, that it is a robust field that needs to be critically analyzed. Historiography compels us to not simply settle for age-old conclusions or textbook answers, rather, it fuels the fire of curiosity and allows us to engage with the past ourselves, with new eyes ready to uncover the most accurate picture of the past possible. Without historiography, we can’t have the discipline of history. It’s why we create historiography-focused DBQs in out historical thinking curriculum.
(Note: This post explores chronological historiography, however, historiography is also the study of different contemporary interpretations of the past. We often refer to these as “schools of history.” We’ll continue to explore this aspect of historiography in a future post.)
As I write this on Thursday, November 5, the presidential election is still uncalled. Even if states like Arizona, Pennsylvania, and Georgia submit final tallies today, there is bound to be weeks of lawsuits, recounts, and general distrust of these results from whichever side loses the presidential campaign. With votes so close in several swing states, and the winner of those states’ popular vote gaining all of its electoral votes, even a handful of votes could make a huge (4 years!!) difference in who runs the executive branch of our country.
With this in mind, so many people have wondered how the electoral college works, why it was implemented, and whether or not the Constitution should be amended to abolish the institution. Today, I want to explore why the founders set up the Electoral College.
How to elect the president was a hotly debated topic at the 1787 Constitutional Convention. Should it be through a popular vote? Should the state legislatures choose the executive? Should Congress? Something else? In the end, the framers of the Constitution decided on a unique, if not confusing, system: the Electoral College.
There is no question that the Electoral College limits majoritarian democracy; it is an “indirect election.” But it is important to keep in mind that in founding the new U.S. Government, the framers wanted unity. As shown by the country’s first 4 of 5 presidents being from Virginia, large states generally had more swaying power in federal politics than small states. Since the U.S. strove to be a republic, governed by federalism, the framers had to come up with a way to balance the power of small and large states. This was to “avoid the tyranny of the majority.” If the will of the majority constantly overtook the rights of minorities, a popular despotism would likely result.
For the legislative branch, they created a bicameral legislature (the House and Senate) where the lower house’s number of representatives from each state was determined by that state’s population, whereas the upper house gave each state two delegates (senators). This way, even if large states could control the house, smaller states would have more of a voice in the Senate.
The process for electing the president has similar characteristics. Each state receives electors based on how many representatives they have in Congress ( # of House reps + 2 senators). In the minds of the framers, this would ensure that the diverse needs of states and citizens would be heard. Framers also worried about an uninformed electorate choosing the President, and with electors they believed that informed, uninfluenced, educated men could make objective decisions for the needs of their state.
Coming from a Confederation that lacked any real central authority, the founders wanted to keep state autonomy strong, while also building up the role of a federal government. Having this compromised approach to electing the President was one way to do that. Small states still had a say in who their next president was, but large states containing more people would still receive more electoral votes.
Of course, the dynamics of the American populous have changed drastically in the last 230 years. When the Constitution was written, the majority of Americans (95%) lived in rural settings, now more than 80% live in cities. There are sound arguments in opposition to and in favor of the Electoral College. There were 230 years ago. Like many other aspects of our Constitution, the Electoral College was a compromise. Still, to understand that compromise, we must contextualize this aspect of our Constitution within the time and place it was ratified. Once we have done that, then we can bring sound arguments to the public sphere as to whether the Electoral College is still the best fit for the United States.
In October 15’s blog, I brought up the Election of 1800. It was a hotly contested election that embodied some of the same intense partisan divisions of today. In fact, many historians call it “the revolution after the revolution.” I also mentioned one of the major ways it was such a critical moment in world history: it marked the first peaceful transition of power. Yes, that is right, for the first time in human history, an opposing party took control of the government peacefully. No civil war, no declaration of “fraud,” just John Adams, the Federalist, packing his bags from the White House and Thomas Jefferson, the Democratic-Republican, moving in. I want to spend today’s post understanding the importance of the principles behind this moment.
The United States Constitution addresses the election of presidents in three places. Article II is the most well known, and original to the 1789 ratification. After clear holes were found in the process in the election of 1800, the 12th Amendment laid out a clear process for electors in the Electoral College to cast a vote for the President and Vice President, to avoid deadlocks. Then, in 1933, the end of a presidential term was changed to “noon on the 20th day of January.” This means that by noon on January 20th, the elected President assumes office.
There has been a lot of talk about the contested nature of this election. While former Vice President, Joe Biden, has asserted that if he loses the election he will concede victory and respect the results, President Donald Trump has provided less assurance. Of course, Senate Republicans, who largely support the Trump Administration have quickly assured “a peaceful transition of power.” Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnel (R-KY) tweeted, “The winner of the November 3rd election will be inaugurated on January 20th. There will be an orderly transition just as there has been every four years since 1792.” Nebraska Senator, Ben Sasse (R) was even more blunt in his comments, “The president says crazy stuff. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power. It’s not going to change.” As their own comments relate, having a peaceful transfer of power is one of the hallmarks of a Constitutional Democracy, where the voice of the people governs.
One thing that the framers of the U.S. Constitution recognized was that for America to be successful, the government had to be bigger than a person, bigger than a political party. This is why George Washington stepped down from office despite popular approval in 1796. It’s why President Bill Clinton assured the people at the end of the contested 2000 presidential election that “The peaceful transfer of power from one administration to the next, from one party to another, may confound others around the globe. But it reflects the underlying strength of our Constitution and rule of law.” Centuries apart, these presidents recognized the importance of transferring power.
As political scientist, John Zvesper notes, a peaceful transfer of power demonstrates that even the most deep partisan divisions can be properly resolved. When one leader hands the reins to another, it reminds us that our country is not built on the winds of a particular leader or a particular party, but on the voice of the people. Our principles transcend time, place, and person. Our Constitution’s first three words, “We the People,” are enshrined in this peaceful process of transferring power, and well, that is something to be proud of.
Last week, we looked at the phrase, “History Repeats Itself” through a historical thinking lens. There are some truths to the phrase since many patterns can be seen throughout the past, however, it is too simplistic. Yes, studying history reveals continuities, but what makes it an academic discipline is change. The past is interesting because things have changed over time.
This week, I want to talk about empathy. I remember a few years ago when I was reading historian John Fea’s Why Study History?. He summarizes the importance of empathy in the study of the past. If empathy is trying to genuinely understand other people, their thoughts, and their actions, then historians must be empathetic if they want to present an accurate view of the past. It’s not simply about what happened, but why things happened and how people felt about what happened. Simply, Fea recognizes that historical thinkers must “listen to the past,” in order to accurately portray the past.
The need for empathy is most pronounced with the historical thinking skill of Continuity and Change over Time. When historians and students acknowledge that things have changed over time, they acknowledge the need for humility and understanding of past events and actors. In many ways, the past is a foreign country to us. People thought, spoke, and acted differently than we do today. Historians must uncover these differences not necessarily to praise or condemn (although there is, at times, occasion for both), but to understand. How can we study people accurately if we don’t try to truly understand them?
At first, when we gloss over a historical thinking skill, we may just see analysis skills helpful for students in classrooms, but history has so much more to offer us. When we recognize that the past is both similar and different than our present, we cease to draw simplified conclusions, and rather than just trying to make use of the past for our present needs, we try to understand the past for what it was, much like we hope future generations will try to understand us. This act is an act in both humility and empathy.
With this in mind, Thinking Nation’s historical thinking curriculum strives to equip students to understand the foreign country that is the past. Sometimes they will explore eras and events that are intrinsically interesting to them and connected to our present. Sometimes they will explore parts of the past that feel a little more foreign. But at all times, we know that historical thinkers must try to present the past accurately, and that means putting ourselves in the shoes of those who came before, thinking through the many differences between those lives and our own, and presenting the complex human experience in a thoughtful way.
We want to create a Thinking Nation and we believe that equipping students with historical thinking skills is paramount to this endeavor. When students utilize the historical thinking skill of Continuity and Change over Time, they must be empathetic toward the past. This also has very real implications for their present. When we internalize this historical empathy, we are better able to be empathetic in our own lives. We try to understand others who are different than us before we rush into judgment and we recognize that different life circumstances, backgrounds, and upbringing can lead people to different conclusions. Understanding before (and perhaps even instead of) judgment. With polarization only growing, this feels crucial. If we want a flourishing democracy we need empathetic citizens. Thinking historically can help ensure that happens.
We’ve all heard it before. “History repeats itself!” It’s a common phrase used by people from elementary students to retirees. We love to look at our present, compare it to the past, and then focus on all of the similarities to say “we’ve seen this before.” If you’ve ever talked with a historian, though, you’re bound to hear a challenge. Historians love nuance. As we navigate the past through the evidence at hand, its complexities surface and the old-time saying begins to lose its authority. Sure, there are patterns and similarities that span time, but if we want to wrestle with the complexity of the past, we should challenge simple notions of repetition.
The study of history is the study of change over time. When we look at the causes of events, the ascension of power, or the economic dynamics of society, we are acknowledging change. Without change, there is nothing to study. In fact, the reason we seek out similarities is because so much of the past can often feel foreign. Of course, this does not mean that there aren’t continuities throughout history. To challenge the adage “History repeats itself,” does not mean we cannot acknowledge continuities across time periods, geographic locations, or groups of people. In fact, at Thinking Nation, our historical thinking curriculum stresses the importance of recognizing these patterns in order to help us better read our own current moment so that we can be informed citizens who are equipped to strengthen our democracy.
A prime example of understanding how both change and continuity are at play when we study the past can be seen in presidential elections. As we approach the election, we are inundated with advertisements that try to point out negative qualities of each of the two main candidates. These ads can lead to further polarization and cement partisan viewpoints. This polarization can become very unhealthy in a democracy, where people refuse to work across party lines and therefore stagnate any real change from occurring. But while some people can overlook the hindrance this causes for our government to function, others can be overly alarmist in their fears that all is lost. When we look at the past, however, we can land in the middle, recognizing the ways that we have seen this polarization before.
In 1800, President John Adams ran for a second term against his friend and fellow founder, Thomas Jefferson. Yale historian, Joanne B. Freeman describes the election this way: “Nasty political mud-slinging. Campaign attacks and counterattacks. Personal insults. Outrageous newspaper invective. Dire predictions of warfare and national collapse. Innovative new forms of politicking capitalizing on a growing technology.” Of course, this sounds like current ad campaigns, but as it turns out, these strategies embodied the election of 220 years ago. The media at the time, newspapers, aligned with either the Democratic-Republicans (Jefferson) or the Federalists (Adams) and sought to tear the character of the opponent apart. Fears of losing all religious and moral virtue were spread if Jefferson were to win, while autocracy and loss of democracy was feared if Adams reigned victorious. Jefferson ended up winning (after tying with fellow Republican, Aaron Burr, resulting in a deadlock in the House of Representatives). Jefferson became the first non-Federalist to become President, which meant that his transition into the White House marked the first peaceful transfer of power between political parties.
This story should bring us a sense of comfort. Its similarities to our current moment, fraught with “ill-founded jealousies and false alarms, [and kindling] the animosity of one part against another” (As George Washington warned in 1796) were overcome through Constitutional means. Our Constitutional framework held up against unpredictability and bitter partisanship. We can take comfort that it will do it again next month.
Of course, there are myriad differences between our current political moment and that of 1800. We cannot simply assume that history will repeat itself and that there will not be real damage if polarization only grows. Thus, if we think historically, we can acknowledge the similarities of the past and resist shock-value scares by the media. Simultaneously, we can recognize important changes and as citizens, continue to fight for the preservation of democracy. Next week, we will dive further into what it means to recognize both continuities between past and present and change over time, but for now, let us continue to push ourselves to be a [historically] thinking nation.
At the beginning of this week, the deadline for registering to vote passed in a handful of states (For those of you in California, you still have until October 19th, although even if you miss that, you can register and cast a conditional ballot on November 3, election day). Lately, there has been a lot of talk about voting. I see dozens of ads that tell me to “Register to Vote!” every day. Voting is on everyone’s mind. While we could spend this time focusing on current voting issues and trends, I want to take us back to America’s founding to better understand how voting came to be such an integral aspect of our democracy.
When the Constitution was ratified in 1789, it was equally a revolutionary document and a product of its time. We see a glimpse of its revolutionary nature in the process of electing members of the House of Representatives. Article I, which outlines the rules for Congress, states in Section 2 that these members should be “chosen every second Year by the People of the several States” [emphasis mine]. To have direct elections of federal representatives was an extraordinary leap forward for global democracy and it is important to remind ourselves of how revolutionary this proposition was. “We the People” actually meant something here. Still, “the people” was a narrow group, largely excluding non-landowning white men, women, and Black Americans among other groups. This caveat reveals how just as the Constitution was revolutionary, it was shaped by its present world and perceptions.
Later on in that same Article of the Constitution, it states, “The Times, Places and Manner of holding Elections for Senators and Representatives, shall be prescribed in each State by the Legislature thereof.” Here we see the political concept of federalism at work, that is, the separation of governing power between the national and state governments. Simply translated, this clause means that states get to decide the details of elections, including who was able to vote. Since laws at this time generally favored landowners specifically, and white men in general, most states limited voting to this group. (Interestingly, in New Jersey, many women were able to vote until 1807, when that right was revoked).
Over time, property restrictions were lifted in most states, and since the Constitution granted states the right to dictate who made up the voting populace, this meant that more people (white men) could vote. This led to “universal white male suffrage” largely dominating American electoral politics by the end of the 1820s.
It would still be about 40 more years before the federal government laid specific rules for who could vote in federal elections. Five years after the Civil War ended and the 13th Amendment abolished slavery in 1865, Congress passed the 15th Amendment in 1870, which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Practically, this meant that Black men could now vote alongside white men in elections. Women were still left out of electoral politics.
(A side note here: many people (and generations of historians) have often neglected to highlight the political lives of women before the 19th Amendment, but this does not mean that women were not politically active in the 18th and 19th centuries, it simply means that they did not vote. As with today, women were at the center of major social movements that brought real political change. So, just because women did not vote did not mean they were not political citizens, they simply exercised their political natures in more creative ways. Two great books to learn more are Mary Beth Norton’s foundational Liberty’s Daughters and Rosmarie Zagarri’s Revolutionary Backlash.
After almost a century of campaigning for suffrage, women finally were granted the right to vote by the federal government in 1920. The 19th Amendment, which solidified this right into the Constitution, stated, “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” At least on paper, America was looking more like a full democracy, where all citizens could vote.
Sadly, simply because a right is ingrained into the Constitution does not mean that it is freely exercised. From the end of the 19th century throughout the 20th century, millions of Americans were barred from voting through roundabout means. Literacy tests and poll taxes kept thousands of black Americans and poor white Americans from voting. Many immigrants could not vote because of local laws, and crude tactics of intimidation were conducted by white supremacist groups like the KKK to keep constitutional rights from turning into political power for many Black Americans during the fateful Jim Crow era (1876-1965). Due to the persistence of Civil Rights Activists in the 1950s and 60s, some of these clearly discriminatory laws were overturned through landmark legislation like the Civil Rights Act (1964) and Voting Rights Act (1965).
The last major amendment on voting came in 1971. The 26th Amendment lowered the voting age requirement across the states to age 18. Now, if a man was old enough to be drafted into war, they were also old enough to vote.
Today, with talks of the importance of voting coupled with talks of voter fraud and voter suppression, understanding this history is ever more important. Countless Americans have fought for the right to vote to be ingrained in our Constitution and it is a right we should not hold too loosely. The right to vote spans race, ethnicity, sex, and perhaps most timely, partisan-alignment. Wherever one falls on any of these categories, recognizing the Constitutional work that went into giving Americans the right to vote should encourage us to proudly take part in this pivotal part of the democratic process.
How did we get here? Honestly, I’ve been asking that question a lot lately. Just one month away from the 2020 Presidential election, 2020 has been one of the wildest years on record in American history.
In January, we watched impeachment hearings for only the 3rd time in our nation’s history. The next month, we heard of rumors of COVID’s toll in China, but we didn’t act yet. Then March happened. I remember being with the teacher I mentored on Thursday, March 12th. Before I left, I encouraged him to consider how to adapt his following unit to an online format in anticipation of a potential school closure. That next day, Friday the 13th (of all days!) was the last day students would be in seats for the rest of that school year. They still haven’t been able to attend school in person. It’s October. The pandemic has taken over 1 million lives across the globe and has upended the lives of billions throughout the world.
This summer, our country faced its past history of racial injustice directly. Our newsfeeds highlighted the names of black Americans who were unjustly killed: Ahmaud Arberry, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd. Their lives, stolen from this world all too early, put faces to the systemic injustice the United States has yet to fully grapple with. Racial tensions are so high that at the first presidential debate in 2020 (September 29), moderator, and Fox News anchor, Chris Wallace directly asked President Donald Trump to denounce white supremacy. Completely unsatisfactory to many Americans, the President responded, “Proud Boys: Stand back and stand by.” Without the clarity asked of him by Wallace, it is clear that the racial tensions that have swelled over this summer are far from subsiding.
America is divided. It’s hard to refute this, but at Thinking Nation, we believe that thinking historically can help bridge some of those divides. Of course, just as there is never one cause to a historical event, there is not a single solution to bringing peace instead of division. Still, the historical thinker is uniquely equipped to better understand how we ended up here in order to redeem the present for a better future.
A few weeks ago, I introduced 5 C’s of historical thinking and how they connect to our curriculum. Today, I want to focus on Causation. In that September 10th blog post I summed it up this way:
Causation: Simply, why did things happen the way they did? Exploring these answers is critical to analyzing the past. Historians must recognize that there are often multiple causes of and effects from any given event, development, or process.
Or they can trace the history of redlining and the refusal of home loans for black families, preventing them from creating the generational wealth many white American families acquired in the post WWII era. Historians can help us understand these events and the various results of those events on American life.
While history may not “repeat itself” as the adage goes, it would be naive to say that the study of the past does not help us understand our present. If nothing else, when we look at the tumultuous sea of public life right now, we can find similar glimpses in the past. These glimpses can provide both fuel for us to push for something better and comfort knowing that in some ways, we’ve been here before. This is historical thinking in action.
Just like a roller coaster is not nearly as scary if you’ve been on it before, the present can be less intimidating if we know how things happened in the past. When historical thinkers contemplate causation, they don’t simply gain a better grasp about the causes and effects of events in the past, but can use those skills to better grasp the world in which they live in. When students understand causation, they are better thinkers, and when they are better thinkers, they can be better citizens. Our historical thinking curriculum equips them for this growth journey.
Throughout my career in history education, I have recognized one of the key attributes of a quality historian is his or her ability to ask good questions. At first, this may seem like a very surface-level observation, but the more I engaged with historians through conferences, social media, and their own research, it became clear just how integral good questions were to the discipline. As with other historical thinking skills, the ability to ask good historical questions does not come naturally. We must teach this skill to our students in order for them to critically engage with both the past and present.
The historical thinking skills that I outlined two weeks ago can serve as a strong foundation for asking good historical questions. Since history is not simply the past, but the “study and interpretation of the past” (September 3’s blog), then one cannot be simply satisfied with knowing what happened, but must probe deeper.
Historians ask questions of causation: What led to this event? How did event A relate to event B? What were the consequences of this person’s choice?
Historians ask questions of Change over time: How did religious beliefs change over time in colonial America? Why did slavery end in the western world in the 19th century?
Historians ask questions of contextualization: What was happening at the time of this event that influenced its outcome? Who was involved in this decision?
Like detectives hoping to understand a crime, historians uncover details and follow leads to better understand the past. This is why simple questions turn into books, and more books, and then, more books. Although simple, a question like “Why did the United States grow as a global power?” does not produce a simple answer. In fact, since the past is shaped by complex people and groups, no one can expect simple answers in the study of the past.
Unfortunately, students are often presented with one narrative of the past. Namely, whatever their textbook states. But that narrative is just one in a sea of perspectives. Students must not be satisfied with a simple narrative as it is presented to them, but must be willing to explore the past and draw their evidence-based conclusions from that exploration.
This fundamental aspect of the historical discipline is why Document Based Questions (DBQs) are at the center of our historical thinking curriculum. In these DBQs, students are presented with a series of historical documents and context and asked a complex question. Questions like:
How did the development of agriculture shape early civilizations?
How did the status of women change over time in medieval and early modern Japan?
How did enslaved people resist their enslavement and why is this historically significant?
How did European countries justify their imperialism and colonization of Africa?
Did President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal improve the lives of African Americans?
Questions like these force students to consider the complexity of the past and not settle for a simple narrative. Sure, complexity can be frustrating when we want a simple answer, but when we are ok living in the grey for a little while, we are more likely to be empathetic to those who we disagree with.
In this regard, I think of the late justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, the “Notorious RBG.” As we reflect on her life in light of her recent death, we can learn a lot about the beautiful outcome of being able to ask good historical questions. Justice Ginsburg had a close friendship with her ideological opposite on the Supreme Court, Antonin Scalia. Here, two Supreme Court justices, who drew very different conclusions on the implications of the United States Constitution, respected one another and recognized that they each came to their conclusions through rigorous conclusions about our nation’s founding document and our nation’s judicial past. Their good questions allowed them to draw evidence-based conclusions to inform our government’s legal system. Simultaneously, the complexity their questions revealed promoted a mutual respect for each other’s expertise. More simply, their acknowledgment of history’s complexity produced an intellectual humility. Our current hyper-partisan moment craves this type of humility for the sustaining of our democracy. For this reason, Thinking Nation believes that when our students think historically, they are better citizens. This path starts with asking good historical questions.