Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part II

We continue with our blog posts on Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.

In this section of chapter one, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” we meet Derek, an Advanced Placement American history student and the salutatorian of his high school class. Wineburg gave Derek a series of primary documents related to the Battle of Lexington. Derek made some careful observations of the sources, but when asked to choose a picture that best represented the military engagement he had read about in the primary sources, he chose a picture that showed colonists hiding behind walls and shooting at the Redcoats. He thought it would be “ludicrous” for the minutemen to stand out in the open where there was a better chance that they would be shot by the enemy.

Wineburg writes that Derek’s reconstruction of the event “holds true only if these people shared his modern notions of battlefield propriety: the idea that in the face of a stronger adversary, you flee behind walls and wage guerrilla warfare…What seemed to guide his view of this event is a set of assumptions about how normal people behave.” Wineburg shows that what Derek perceived as “natural” was actually “perceived as beastly” by New Englanders who associated this kind of guerrilla warfare with savagery. Thus, rather than encountering a past that was foreign and strange, Derek’s “encounter with these eighteenth-century documents left him unfazed.” Instead of asking “Wow, what a strange group of people. What on earth would make them act this way,” Derek missed the opportunity to “contemplate codes of behavior–duty, honor, dying for a cause–foreign to his own world. These documents did not spur Derek to ask himself new questions or consider new dimensions of human experience….Derek read these documents but he learned little from them.”

Wineburg concludes, and rightly so, that “the goal of historical understanding should be to see through the eyes of the people who were there…the goal of historical study should be to teach us what we cannot see, to acquaint us with the congenital blurriness of our vision.”

2 thoughts on “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part II

  1. James, this is a good point. This is why history is a part of the humanities and not a hard science. History is not a perfect discipline and we as human beings are limited in our capacity to know the truth. But this does not mean that we should stop trying. It seems to me that we need to do make every effort to understand the strangeness of the past even as we realize that we can never quite fully understand it because of its remoteness.Such an answer may not be completely satisfying, but the practice of history always requires living with these tensions.


  2. How do we evaluate our success? That is, how do we know we’ve thought our way out of our own minds and into the minds of people long dead? Ouch! Historians struggle to be out of their minds! That’s not quite what I meant to say. I’ll try again. How do we know that we’ve set aside our own biases enough to comprehend the thinking of someone else?If we cannot see it, how do we know we’ve gained a glimpse? Can the subaltern speak through the documents of kings and colonists?


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