Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part V

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

Chapter Two, “The Psychology of Teaching Learning History,” is a rather technical chapter. It is also the chapter that will be most foreign to historians. Wineburg introduces us to scholarship on how students learn about the past. He cites articles from journals such as Psychology of High School Subjects, the Journal of Educational Research, and the Journal of Educational Psychology. He makes references to Piaget.

But I wonder: How many historians actually read this stuff? How many historians care? I confess that I have read virtually nothing in this field. Most Ph.Ds would probably say that this kind of literature is important reading material for school teachers, but unimportant for historians.

Recently Historiann has suggested that it is historiography, not pedagogical theory, that should be the most important dimension of graduate school training. Since graduate school is all about producing historians, this makes sense. Training in historiography can also make us better teachers. When our students encounter the past through a primary document they should know that historians may have legitimate disagreements over how to interpret it.

But does training in historiography mean that graduate students do not have to take one or two courses in pedagogy? (If I read her correctly, I think Historiann would agree with me here). I remember hearing Lendol Calder, the dean of “uncoverage,” deliver a lecture titled “For Teachers to Live, Professor’s Must Die.” In response to a question from the audience, he said that a professor’s last-minute prepping for class would be better spent reading literature on historical pedagogy than literature on historical content. (Lendol, I hope I am getting this right. If not, please correct me). In the last half hour before a class on the American Revolution should we be reading Sam Wineburg or a pertinent chapter in Gary Nash or Gordon Wood? I think Calder would side with Wineburg.

Wineburg also has some interesting things to say on school history textbooks. He cites Avon Crismore’s work on this subject. I have never heard of Crismore, but she seems to have discovered something that some history professors already know. Crismore found that textbooks, unlike other forms of history writing, were void of “judgment, emphasis, and uncertainty.” They do not use the same “hedges” that academic historians use in their work. One rarely finds words such as “may,” “might,” or “perhaps” in textbooks. In other words, textbooks do not “convey the uncertainty of historical knowledge.” (Again, this should not be news to historians).

Where does this leave students? It leads them to believe, Crismore argues, that history is only about “knowing the facts.” Crismore concludes that “Young readers need to see author biases and evaluate them at an early age; textbooks and teachers need to teach them how to do this.” (With this in mind, I am now planning to devote a few days of our after-dinner conversations with my 11 and 7 year old daughters to a discussion of bias in history. I am only half kidding about this).

Here is an unoriginal thought: Let’s get rid of textbooks. I am sure all of those senior historians who have made big bucks writing them would shudder at the thought, but Calder seems to have it right. Why not assign a document reader and then give the students a copy of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States and Paul Johnson’s A History of the American People (Or Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States) and teach them how to think, and how not to think, historically.

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

  1. Yes, you’re reading me right–I don’t understand why pedagogy and historiography need to be portrayed as opposites. They compete with each other only in time management terms.I disagree with the notion (I think Paul Harvey commented on this last summer?) that a proffie should prep for class by reading pedagogy, not recent historiography. 30 minutes doesn’t do justice to either field, but even if we understand that as a provocative framing device for the argument, what good is excellent teaching if the ideas you’re teaching are 40 years out of date? Why bother teaching, if you’re not going to teach contemporary topics and debates?I’m not saying that historiography is the only thing grad schools should do. They should encourage their students to think as though they’re going to one day be teachers. But historiography delivered in “readings courses” is how we make sure that someone who wrote a dissertation on family and gender in the seventeenth century (as I did, for example) can also teach broad surveys and topics courses on a variety of subjects. How is that not about preparing someone for a teaching career?


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