Thinking Historically With Gordon Wood

One of the most difficult tasks I have as a history teacher is to get my students to think historically. I try to read everything I can about historical thinking and strategies for teaching historical thinking. Two of my favorite resources are Sam Wineburg’s EXCELLENT Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts and anything written by Lendol Calder.

I have been recently working my way through (slowly) Gordon Wood’s The Purpose of the Past. The book is a collection of Wood’s review essays he has written over the years for The New York Review of Books and The New Republic. For people like me who did not start reading Wood’s general readership book reviews until about a decade ago, I have found the book to be a great historiographical resource for any early American historian. At the end of each essay, Wood includes a short addendum in which he reflects on the significance of the book in early American studies and highlights something about the larger interpretive point he tried to make when he originally wrote the review.

Wood’s introduction should be read by all undergraduate history students and advanced high school history students. He writes about the difference between “history” and “memory” and then moves into a jeremiad against the historical sin of presentism.

Wood writes, “We Americans…do not want to hear about the unusability and pastness of the past or about the limitations within which people in the past were obliged to act. We do not want to learn about the blindness of people in the past or about the inescapable boundaries of our actions. Such a history has no immediate utility and is apt to remind us of our powerlessness, of our own inability to control events or predict the future.” What I like about this is Wood’s sensitivity to the fact that historical thinking can instill certain virtues in us irregardless of whether we can learn something from it about our present situation.

I will occasionally post some thoughts on some of Wood’s essays as I continue to read through the book, one essay at a time.

2 thoughts on “Thinking Historically With Gordon Wood

  1. I think I'm reading through this book even slower than you are, but for much the same reasons. I found it in Borders last spring or winter, brought it home, read the introduction, then flipped through to see which books Wood had reviewed. When I found chapter 10, “Truth in History,” Wood went onto the shelf and Telling the Truth About History came off. I'd raced through Appleby, Hunt, and Jacob's book while writing my dissertation fifteen years ago, and needed to go back through with a less urgent agenda.


  2. Thanks for the head’s up on this book. I had not seen it, but I will pick it up soon. As I recall, Edmund Morgan published a similar kind of book a few years back. It is fascinating to read reflections and collected wisdom by such experienced scholars.


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