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.