So I finally have had enough time off of work to get to finish chapter 1 of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, and I have just really been prompted to think about a few things in the field of history.
Firstly, what I appreciate about this chapter is how practical it is for learning historians. I have only completed two years of my undergraduate studies, and so I am not anywhere near close to being an “expert historical thinker” and what Wineburg does is that he sets up tools to help me learn to how to progress and improve my ability to think historically.
The first chapter also prompted me with some good thoughts. One segment of the chapter Wineburg talks about continuity. I can tell you that on an almost regular basis during my Spring semester, David and Tyler of Reckless Historians used to walk over to my dorm room and we would talk for a long time about figuring out when the past is a foreign country, when comparisons can be made, etc. The big thing in Wineburg’s book was talking was learning to separate ourselves from the stories, and not trying to force comparisons upon the past by using our present lens (something I tried to hit home when this blog first started a few months ago). There was a discussion about context looking at Lincoln and some contradictory statements. However, rather than trying to reconcile those statements with our own reason, the important thing is to look for context. Historians don’t build context, they find context and try to piece it together. If we built it, we would be putting our own thoughts into the past (don’t do that). However, by finding the context we discover why people do what they do, and it gives us a greater understanding.
This being said, I am finding a growing frustration with certain aspects of the current state of history education. Firstly when looking at textbooks. Wineburg discusses in chapter 1 a lack of focus on primary sources, and more push on narrative and third person accounts of textbook authors. I get that we are trying to engage students, but let’s be honest. . . Not too many students read their history textbooks to begin with. They are bogged down with the same narratives year after year, and so they feel like they already know the story (at least those were some of the things I have heard classmates in the past say). Instead of making primary sources a side-note, let’s make them the main attraction. Just from my brief experience in college getting to read primary sources, I am generally more entertained and fascinated by hearing a primary source account — ok I am a history major, that might be part of it, but let’s just entertain this idea. I’d much rather hear what a person in Salem was thinking during the Witch Trials than having a textbook tell me a long narrative by a textbook author whose charisma parallels Ben Stein’s.
That being said, I really do understand the importance of the narrative. The narrative helps put all the pieces together, but a narrative needs a base, which is constructed through sources, that I think students would benefit from also engaging. At the end of the day, the textbooks do one thing well that Wineburg talks about, and that is disconnecting themselves from the story. You will not see a textbook author insert the word “I” into a textbook — at least none that I can think of — because I do believe that they understand that it is important not to create the story, but to construct the narrative.
What really hit home to practical thought about history in chapter 1 came from the last two pages. Wineburg on page 24 is summing up the importance of history as a tool to understand others, and he says, “For a narcissist sees the world — both the past and the present — in his own image. Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born, History educates (“leads outward” in Latin) in the deepest sense.” Now I’ve read this quote for my historical methods’ class and also I believe on the door of one of my professor’s offices, and it just continues to strike me. It just serves as a reminder that we as historians are trying to understand others, not trying to win an argument. Thinking historically is incredibly unnatural, because we cannot just reconcile what we don’t know with what we do know. We have to go find out what we don’t know so we can know it — wow that sentence structure seems to either mimic the Cat in the Hat or Willy Wonka, sorry about that. Anywho, as Wineburg seems to have put it, as historians we can either go chase after unicorns, which we are inclined to do since “. . .they are prettier and tame.” However it is the rough, rigid, complex, dirty, wild “rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine,” because that is where the history rests (24).
Once again, these are just some reactions I am having to reading chapter 1, I could be completely wrong in my understanding of the intent of the author (though I hope that I am not too far off). That being said, I really recommend that if you study history, if you have a desire to discern and discover the past that you pick up this book. One chapter in and I am already hooked!