Ok friends, I just finished chapter 2 of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking And Other Unnatural Acts, and I can’t lie my eyes were kind of glazing over at points of the chapter.
Do not get me wrong, I still learned quite a bit, but this was a chapter richly laced with the psychology of teaching and learning. Seeing names like Piaget and Peel just reminded me of my 9am course this past Fall on Educational Psychology. However, like I said, I still gleaned some significant — or at least what I think are significant — concepts behind the study of the past.
I love how Wineburg opened this chapter with Cicero’s quote, “Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child,” which is now going to become my new answer when people ask me why study history (29). I find this answer very funny, and incredibly deep all in one. There is a reason this quote has lasted through the ages, because it defends our noble practice. It also drives home the message I keep pushing. Knowing what happened before does not just mean simple rote-learning, but includes discernment, a necessary function of learning from our past. It provides us with keen insight in how the present has been shaped by past events.
I also like this idea of developing the “Historical Sense,” Wineburg goes through multiple definitions as to what that is, for some it is “. . . ‘[T]he ability to understand the present events in light of the past,'” “. . . The ability to appreciate a historical narrative,” or something else (31-32). Let me try my best to give my take on what is the “Historical Sense.” I see the historical sense as one’s ability to not only know what happened in the past, but understand why it was important on its own terms, preventing our present lens from trying to interpret the past. Ok so it is a mouthful, and probably a definition not too unfamiliar, but nevertheless that is what at this point in my life I think of when I hear the phrase “Historical Sense.”
Another big part of the chapter was about teaching history. How can we teach students to comprehend history? What strategies work best? The big thing I have understood from the chapter is that when we involve the students in helping to define events and people then they will be more likely to recall events. Simply put, telling the students about the economic impact of World War II is not as effective as asking the students “What were some economic implications of World War II,” because now they are forced to recall past events and try to make sense of it. Granted, class lectures are necessary aspects of teaching, but when possible try to ask some big questions, and just sit back and listen to your students — you might be surprised with the complex and powerful answers that they can develop. One of the ways to do that is to help students understand historical evidence. I would love to spend my first week each year teaching my future students “What is history” because I think that is such an important concept to learn before we start going into class lectures. Even just providing a base work for what history is, and evolving that definition through the year will continue to create a powerful opportunity for learning, and will help students grasp and remember more of the content, and its importance.
Whelp, those are my insights on chapter 2. Hopefully, you’ll consider picking up this book and buying it. It has taken me on an exciting adventure into the art of thinking historically, and I’m only 2 chapters in!