Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Part III

We continue with our blogging on Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

After reminding us that the past is a foreign country and its strangeness is what makes it most relevant to the task of liberal learning, Wineburg asks his readers just how far they “are willing to press this point?” Indeed, to suggest that the there is no continuity between the past and the present is just as much an error as the kind of present-mindedness Wineburg addresses earlier in the book.

Mature historical thinking:

requires us to reconcile two contradictory propositions: first, that our established modes of thinking are an inheritance that cannot be sloughed off, and, second, that if we make no attempt to slough them off, we are doomed to a mind-numbing presentism that reads the present onto the past.

Wineburg tells the story of Colleen, an elementary school principal and mother who had not studied history seriously since high school. Colleen had a profound personal encounter with the past through her reading of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s Pulitzer Prize winning book, A Midwife’s Tale. Colleen is moved to tears when she reads Ulrich’s voice in the narrative. She relates to Ulrich’s anger with previous historians’ neglect of Martha Ballard (the midwife whose story is the focus of the book). She can relate to Ulrich’s sadness when Martha’s life comes to an end. She has a passionate and emotional response to the entries from Martha’s diary and begins to relate to Martha’s plight as a mother and professional woman in a patriarchal world.

Before reading A Midwife’s Tale, Wineburg gave Colleen and her fellow seminar participants a short excerpt from a standard high school textbook (written by noted historian Winthrop Jordan) dealing with the place of women in the early republic. The text was written in a very dry, straightforward manner and explained, without any historical examples, the role that women played on early nineteenth-century family farms.

Near the end of this seminar, the participants were asked to write their own essay on “women in the economic life of colonial and post-Revolutionary America.” Colleen was clearly angry at the way the textbook explained the role of women in this period. After reading Martha’s diary and Ulrich’s interpretation of it, she was appalled at the way the textbook devoted only a few sentences to women, simply mentioning that they devoted their lives to cooking, shucking corn, spinning cloth, and washing clothes. Yet her essay, rather than “giving voice to a range of emotions–from identification and recognition to anger and resentment,” was written in a rather objective fashion that was not unlike the very textbook she so hated.

Colleen seemed to understand the remoteness and foreignness of the past, and in this sense was being a good historian. But she also failed to connect with this past in any meaningful way. She failed to see the continuity between the past and her present circumstances.

I’ll let Wineburg sum up:

…Colleen faced a conflict between two spheres of experience: her immediate experience in reading these texts and her prior experiences from high school. Her frustration boiled over when she put pen to paper and could not find a way of resolving the belief that history had slighted her as a woman and the belief that when writing history one should be cool, dispassionate, scientific, objective. In rewriting history Colleen confronted herself, but rather than engage this self and make it part of her story, she interpreted her job as one of self-effacement–removing from the story her passion, her anger, and even her own experience as a mother. As a result Colleen was nowhere to be found in her creation.

Unrestrained passion distorts the story we seek to tell. The balancing of perspectives requires us to step back and see things in other ways, an exceedingly difficult thing to do when anger sears our gut. But Colleen went to the other extreme. Rather than compensating for her subjectivity by sharing it with her readers, she tried to construct a story without a teller–to deal with her deep feelings by pretending that they did not exist.

This tension between the “strangeness” of the past and its continuity with the present is not easy to deal with especially when working with students. I want my students to know that the past is a foreign country. I want them to understand Martha Ballard’s world. Even if they are appalled by something they find there (such as patriarchy) I want them to understand before they condemn. At the same time, I hope that their exposure to the world of Martha Ballard will help them think about who they are in the present by helping them to see where they have come from.

Can we do both? Must we do one before the other? In other words, must we understand these lost worlds in their historical context before we can connect them to the present? Or does this, and should this, happen simultaneously?

More to come.