Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part One

If you are a regular reader of this blog, you know that my favorite book on teaching history is Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. If you are one of my students, have been one of my students, or are a teacher who I have met at a Gilder-Lehrman seminar, you know that I think everyone should read this book.

Since I needed to revisit this book for a chapter I am working on, I thought I would devote a few blog posts to it.

In chapter one, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” Wineburg discusses a question asked by hundreds of undergraduates: “What is history good for?” His nutshell answer is that “history holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum.”

Borrowing from historian David Lowenthal, Wineburg reminds us that the past is a “foreign country.” “Because we more or less know what we are looking for before we enter this past, our encounter is unlikely to change us or cause us to rethink who we are.” Wineburg believes that engaging the past in all its “strangeness” will change us. Such an engagement has the potential to shape our characters. “It is this past,” Wineburg writes, “one that leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels described to us at birth….Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.”

Thinking historically goes against the “grain of how we ordinarily think.” We are narcissists at heart. The past becomes something we consume. It is something we study to meet our needs in the present. Of course the past can be useful in the present, but the study of history does not always guarantee that this will be the case. If we believe, as I do, that human beings are naturally inclined toward selfishness, then to encounter the foreign world of the past–a world that may not be directly relevant to our present lives–requires a way of thinking that is unnatural for us.

As I read Wineburg, I am struck by the fact that teaching my students to think historically is not easy. History is a “discipline” in the sense that it is a “field of study.” But the practice of history also requires “discipline”–a means of moving beyond our natural desire for relevance and usefulness so that our mental faculties and moral character can be cultivated. Wineburg reminds me that history teaching is a calling.

Teachers: Is Wineburg right?

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