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 In these DBQs, students are presented with a series of historical documents and context and asked a complex question.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.