I recently finished reading through an article in Perspectives about the skills of historians. My professor went through this piece in class a couple weeks ago, and I really enjoyed it. Having read the article, I found that I really have grown in my pursuit of the past, and that I am now at the point where thinking historically is becoming more natural for me — a talent I give credit to my professors for. Anywho, here is a segment of the article I am talking about.
As this suggests, history is also unusual—though not unique—in its emphasis on juxtaposing very different kinds of materials, some of which were not intended to be dense with meaning. Historians might read biological or theological arguments about free will or political pamphlets for insight into the society that produced them, but they also look at that society’s food prices, arrest records, dime novels, and brochures for new housing developments. Here I would emphasize not just the variety of interpretive skills such sources need, but the act of putting them together: What do I do if popular culture is full of reactions to a crime wave that is not reflected in the statistics? When can I be confident that fewer reports of a miracle indicate less widespread belief in it? What other kinds of evidence would I need? It is interesting that in a recent survey of employers, “the location, organization, and evaluation of information from multiple sources [emphasis added]” was cited as one of the most-needed skills—trailing only “critical thinking,” “communication,” and other skills taught in many disciplines.1
But what we most obviously emphasize more than other disciplines is change over time. While the importance of understanding how societies change over time may seem too obvious to mention, it’s worth emphasizing that it involves distinctive skills, which are sometimes elided in nonhistorical approaches. Think, for instance, of models of equilibrium-seeking markets, which might tell us that a “wrong” price caused by discrimination will be corrected, but not whether this will take days, years, or generations. I am reminded of my seatmate on a recent plane ride, an ardent charter school advocate who had clearly studied the issues. He was unmoved when I told him that most studies show charter schools perform worse than regular schools more often than they outperform them, because he knew that “eventually” competition would weed out the low performers. Only after a while did he concede the value of supplementing his model with concrete case studies of competition, and that the benefits of competition might emerge too slowly to compensate for undermining existing schools in the meantime. In short, thinking about time scales is less habitual or universal than we may think—even when dealing with relatively measurable kinds of change occurring in fairly stable settings.
You can keep reading this article, here.