The Role of Historiography in How We View Our Past and Present

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. 

Historiography: An Introduction

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.)

Why did the Founders Create the Electoral College?

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.

The Constitution and the Peaceful Transfer of Power

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.

Historical Thinkers are Empathetic Listeners

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.

Does History Really Repeat Itself? Understanding Change over Time

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.

Voting and the Constitution

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.

Why We Must Think Historically – The Importance of Causation

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.

Few disciplines are equipped to ask the question that started this blog, “How did we get here?” But history is. Historians can look at past impeachments to understand this rare political process.

Historians have analyzed past pandemics like when Influenza traveled the globe with soldiers returning to their homes as WWI ended in 1918.

They have illuminated the increasing racial and political tensions of the 1850s which finally caused the Civil War, which killed more Americans than in any other war.

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.

The Importance of Asking Good Historical Questions

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: 

  1. How did the development of agriculture shape early civilizations?
  2. How did the status of women change over time in medieval and early modern Japan?
  3. How did enslaved people resist their enslavement and why is this historically significant?
  4. How did European countries justify their imperialism and colonization of Africa?
  5. 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.

Happy Constitution Day!

After four months of enduring the hot Pennsylvania summer cooped up in a room without ventilation, delegates from 12 of the 13 American states agreed to a new Constitution for the new country. On September 17, 1787, at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, 39 delegates penned their names to the bottom of the nation’s founding document. A new government was agreed upon and now it was up to the states to ratify the document. After New Hampshire became the 9th state to ratify in 1788, it was agreed that the new government would begin on March 4th, 1789.

While different groups celebrated September 17 throughout the 20th century, the federal government did not make Constitution Day official until 2004. On this day each year, federally funded educational institutions are required to provide educational programming on the U.S. Constitution. 

In many ways, the U.S. Constitution marks a break with the past. With this document, the United States became a nation founded on ideas more than common ancestry, common ethnicity, or even common history. Rather, the United States was built on ideological beliefs about the role of government and citizens and how to best ensure the success of a nation. It is because of this break with the past that the United States government is often called “the American Experiment.”

[Of course, there are many ways that the Constitution is a product of its own historical context, but we will have to dive into that another time ;)]

As with any experiment, things have not worked out perfectly. The founders unfortunately permitted slavery to live in the new republic, where it expanded at the detriment of millions of lives in the 19th century. Furthermore, women were not written into the Constitution until the 19th Amendment in 1920, over a century after it was signed. Still, the founders even recognized that there would be the need for change to the founding document in order to best live out the founding creeds; therefore, they instituted an amendment process, where the Constitution could be appropriately adapted to fit the nation’s needs.

Today marks the 233rd anniversary of the signing that took place in Philadelphia on that September day. As the nation continues to confront its past, it is critical to also engage with its founding document. Over two centuries, this document has guided the United States. Interpretations have changed, laws have been added or subtracted, and amendments have been made. Each of these aspects of the American Experiment seek to live out the creed provided in the Constitution’s preamble, “in order to form a more perfect union.”

What Does it Mean to Think Historically?

In my last post, I outlined an answer to a very simple, but by no means simplistic, question: What is history? As a review, history is not merely the past, but it is the study and interpretation of the past. Today, I want to explain what we do with history. Or how do we do history?

At Thinking Nation’s core is our belief in the importance of historical thinking skills. These are the skills that students and scholars need to properly investigate the past. Simply, historical thinking skills are the skills needed to properly interpret documents, events, and their outcomes. These skills are not natural, especially in the clickbait culture we live in. They must be taught and practiced.

A focus on historical thinking was really pioneered by Sam Wineburg with his 2001 book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. From his groundbreaking work, historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke sought to distill the broad question, “What does it mean to think historically?” into an answer that could be used in K-16 classrooms. In their relatively short article, they outlined 5 key historical thinking skills, 3 of which we have explicitly adopted at Thinking Nation, although all 5 are embedded throughout our curriculum.

The 5 skills they prioritized were: Change over Time, Context, Causality, Contingency, and Complexity. A brief summary here is worthwhile.

Change Over Time (We label it as Continuity and Change over Time): The past is not static, things change over time. Similarly, certain trends and patterns reveal that “some aspects of life remain the same across time.” As an example, laws that made sense 200 years ago may not anymore. The world changes, and a historian must be aware of those changes when studying the past.

Context (We label it as Contextualization): People, documents, and events can not be properly understood without looking at the context beyond them. Time periods, geography, social norms, and a host of other things influence the past. Historians must explore the relationship with their subject and the subject’s context in order to best understand the past.

Causality (We label it as Causation): Simply, why did things happen they way they did? Exploring these answers is critical to analyzing the past. Historians must recognize that there are often multiple causes of and effect from any given event, development, or process.

Contingency: At Thinking Nation, we do not explicitly teach contingency, but its principles guide our curriculum. In fact, the use of this skill is necessary for the other skills. Historical contingency stresses that nothing that happened in the past was inevitable, rather the way history went is contingent on a host of various factors. Historians must never assume that things had to be a certain way, but must apply a critical eye to the outcomes of the past in order to understand the road to the present.

Complexity: When the above skills are implemented, one thing becomes clear—history is complex. Simplistic narratives of the past do not do the justice to the complexity in the lives of the people who lived before us. Historians must be ok with nuance, sometimes living in gray areas where the answer is not clear.

Lastly, at Thinking Nation, we also stress the Historical Thinking Skill of Comparison. This skill is helpful for middle and high school students to internalize as they study the past. Historians must identify both the similarities and the differences between the people, places, events, and ideas studied in history.

Of course, we would not stress these skills as much as we do if we believed they only had importance for studying the past. The truth is, people who can think historically are better equipped to think about the present. In a culture where hot takes are given more credence than deliberation and misinformation can spread faster than fire, historical thinkers can pause, think critically, and make evidence-based decisions to better the world around them. Our historical thinking curriculum equips students to do this.

What is History?

As a teacher, I’ve often asked this question to my students. Here are some of the answers I’ve received: “the past,” “events from the past,” “important events from the past that shaped our present,” and “things that have already happened.”

While none of these answers are completely wrong, they leave out a critical partner in history: the historian. History is not merely the past, it is the study of the past. Furthermore, the result of this study of the past is not simply the past as it happened; rather, it demonstrates an interpretation of the past. It is these two terms, study and interpretation, that best encapsulate history’s relation to the past as it was. 

While this clarification of the definition of history may seem like an unremarkable complication of the word, it is essential to communicate to students. Often, students are presented with a single textbook narrative of what happened and are left to think that history is merely the recorded past. Beyond the textbook, however, are generations of historians who have gathered and interpreted evidence from primary sources in order to make certain claims about the past. Their consistent willingness to be driven by the evidence and open to new interpretations reveals the complexity of historical study. As historian John Fea has put it, “The past never changes, but history changes all the time.”

With this understanding of history, history becomes a dynamic experience. Students do not need to simply agree with the narrative that is presented to them. They become investigators, using primary sources to construct the past as the evidence presents it. Sure, things like the dates of events and (most times) the people involved are simple facts that do not need to be interrogated with a healthy skepticism. But rather than ending the study of the past at those basic facts, students can use those details as a foundation to explore deeper questions. This is where historical thinking skills come to play, the subject of our next blog post.

When we talk about history, let us remember that it is far more than “the past.” It is the study and interpretation of the past. This study and interpretation frequently revises the story of the past based on new evidence or the viewing of that evidence with new lenses. This makes history a lively discipline, sometimes filled with conversation and consensus and other times with debate and disagreement. In any case, history builds bridges between past and present, and empowers students to make meaning of their learning. It solidifies a type of intellectual exploration that allows them to be active participants in a larger story rather than simply passive listeners of a simplified narrative.