What Does The Text Do And The Complex Understanding of History

One thing I love about having a day off from work?  Getting to read more.  I just finished chapter 3 of Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.   This chapter keyed in on understanding historical documents.

During one part of the chapter, Wineburg had historians and high school students reading texts and determining which ones were more reliable and trustworthy as historical documents.  The historians chose the primary sources.   The high school students (who were at the top of their classes) chose the textbooks.  The students chose the textbook because they believed that it was a simple recitation of fact, which goes right along to the way that teachers train students.  However, I think my professors will be happy to know that even before I read Wineburg’s opinion, I was already cringing at the diction chosen by the textbook.   You can see the excerpt on page 67.

The big point that Wineburg makes is about what the historians were looking at when evaluating the texts.  The historians were looking at the subtext and the actual words written.  Rather than just taking the words at face value, and looking no deeper, the historians were trying to figure out the story of the author based off what they wrote.  What was his economic class?  Which perspective is he taking?  They were also trying to understand more about what actually happened at the event.  However, this also meant trying to remove bias.  Thus the historians had to take off their present day lenses, they tried to figure out why a person would write what they would write, and thusly using that knowledge to know what biases to look out for.  Thus the historians were trying more to figure out not only what the text was saying, but what the text was doing!

Wineburg also talked about reading into history.  Some books that suggest reading strategies for teachers make it seem like you can read history in the same way that you can read literature, physics, and math textbooks.  My friends, we all know that is not correct.  History is not something that can just be written in a book, and then questions are no longer asked.  However, that is what textbooks in classrooms are leading us to believe.  Wineburg talked about the lack of footnotes in textbooks, and so it does not demonstrate the tremendous debates going on behind the scenes of history.  I totally understand where he is coming from, because I can remember when I was in high school reading my textbook, and taking the words as law.  However, since coming to college I am realizing that even textbooks have their faults, and students need to see the great debates being held within the words by different sides of the historical debate.

Just some simple thoughts on chapter 3, I hope you enjoyed!



Christian, Lover of History, Aspiring Teacher

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Teaching History, The Ways Historians Think, Thoughts from Other Historians
2 comments on “What Does The Text Do And The Complex Understanding of History
  1. johnfea says:

    Glad to see you are getting a jump on your reading for HIST 390 in the Fall. Yes, we will be reading Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts!

  2. Phil says:

    It is really a great read! I am really enjoying it.

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