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.