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.