Frederick Douglass and America’s Double Standard

For those of us fascinated by Frederick Douglass, February is an especially important month. While he never knew his actual birthday, he celebrated it on February 14th. Then, on February 20th, 1895, Douglass died in the entryway to his home in Washington, D.C. Tomorrow is the 126th anniversary of the great abolitionist, orator, and writer’s death. 

Douglass in 1845

Frederick Douglass often appealed to the contradiction he saw in American society: a people who cherished their liberty but held millions in bondage. This theme spans decades of his work and is demonstrated in a variety of contexts. At the heart of his message was the idea that America was holding a double standard. The liberty and rights claimed for all Americans in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution were, in practice, only apportioned to white Americans, perhaps even only white men.

Douglass in 1855

Shortly after his escape from slavery, and immediately after he returned from a two year time in Great Britain, Douglass was distraught. The very country that took away the liberty of the rest Americans treated him with dignity and respect. In his words, “I went to England, monarchical England, to get rid of democratic slavery.”

Throughout much of his writing, Douglass referenced the principles of the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence. Among these principles, his writing emphasized that the government’s job is to protect the rights of its people. In 1847 he called for the “Constitution [to be] shriveled in a thousand fragments.” 

Douglass in 1863

In a different context, in his 1852 speech, “What to the Slave is the 4th of July?” he declared that “The principles contained in that instrument (the Declaration of Independence) are saving principles.” Interestingly, despite his stinging words against the Constitution in years prior, he affirmed what many of his white contemporaries would have agreed to—the principles of the Declaration of Independence were principles worth following. These principles he advocated to “be true to… on all occasions, in all places, against all foes, and at whatever cost.” By 1852, Douglass had changed to believe that the Constitution was in fact an antislavery document. Then, he was not shy about calling out that Americans had not adhered to those principles. It was in this speech that he devoted most of his words to defending his observations “that the character and conduct of this nation never looked blacker to me than on this 4th of July.” Using the very occasion to celebrate America’s birthday, Douglass called his audience back to its founding principles, reminding them of the nation’s failure to uphold them for all people. Americans were not holding true to their goals, and Douglass felt it his duty to open their eyes.

Douglass in 1870

Then, in 1865, in reference to asserting African American’s rights, he asked for “not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice” for “the colored people.” This justice found its basis in the “saving principles” of America’s founding documents. Douglass asked for nothing more than for these principles to be applied to African Americans, as they were White Americans. He wanted the simple justice of “the Negro’s right to suffrage.” It is here, too, that he decries America’s inability to extend this same right to women. Simply, and to applause, Douglass declared, “I hold that women, as well as men, have the right to vote.” The double standard of American liberty did not stop at the white-black dichotomy, but also between women and men.

Douglass in 1879

Douglass would at times put forth the responsibility for change on his fellow African Americans, wanting them to ask themselves “What am I doing to elevate and improve my condition, and that of my brethren at large?” Still, it must be seen that he believed that until America reconciled its double standard of liberty, equality-for-all could not be guaranteed. America could not simply rid of this disparity by sending African Americans away. Throughout his writings and speeches, he called to action both white and black Americans to break down the splintered scaffolding that rested on the “saving principles” of America’s founding in order to rebuild a sturdy frame on a sturdy foundation. Because, after all, African Americans “are here and are here to stay.

Douglass was an American hero. He chastised his country as a prophet and worked tirelessly to bring about real equality. He embodied historical thinking. We would do well to live in his legacy.

Douglass in the 1890s

The Silent Graves at George Washington’s Mount Vernon

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.

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A Cabin for an enslaved family at Mount Vernon. This small cabin would have between 8-12 family members in it.

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.

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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 Past is Our Mirror

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. 

Thinking historically gives us the tools to do this and is why historical thinking skills are at the center of our curriculum.

“Accurate” History and the 1776 Commission Report

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.

Welcoming the New Year by Reflecting on the Past

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.

Evidence Must be the Foundation of Our Inquiry

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’s historical 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.

The Importance of Evidence

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.

Thinking Historically Can Teach Us Gratitude

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.

Diving a little deeper into the connection between Thanksgiving and history, though, I hope to unpack how thinking historically can make us more thankful. A few weeks ago, we explored how when we think historically by understanding how things change over time, we can become more empathetic. We recongized that people in the past were different from us in many ways, and in order to properly understand them on their own terms, we must humble ourselves and seek truth over ideology. This takes an empathy that history cultivates well. Connected to this, it can cultivate gratitude. 

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. 

Happy Thanksgiving!

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.)

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.

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.

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.