Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part IX

In Chapter Six of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, Sam Wineburg, with the aid of Suzanne M. Wilson, “peer at history through different lenses.” The chapter focuses on four new teachers. All of them were trained in the same teacher education program, but not all of them majored in history. Wineburg examines how they think about teaching history, focusing on how they perceive “the role of factual knowledge,” “the place of interpretation,” “the significance of chronology and continuity,” and the “meaning of causation.”

The teachers of record were Fred, a political science and international relations major; Cathy, an anthropology major; Bill, an American studies major; and Jane, an American history major. Here is how these teachers responded to Wineburg’s categories:

Factual Knowledge: Fred was not a fan of factual knowledge. He preferred larger themes and general principles. Bill suggested that facts were important building blocks in a history classroom, but interpretation was more important. Jane thought facts were essential to history teaching, but they “should be woven together by themes and questions, and, most important, embedded in a context that lends meaning and purpose.”

Interpretation and Evidence: Cathy wanted to talk about interpretation, but could not fathom interpreting the past without hard evidence. As an anthropology major with an archaeology minor, she wanted certainty. She believed the truth needed to be “unearthed.” The work of the historian was thus gathering this evidence and explaining it. Jane, on the other hand, thought interpretation was not about certainty, but about uncertainty. She wanted her students to learn about the past, but she also wanted them to see how historians reconstruct it. Fred argued that history was about communicating facts. Interpretation was important, but this was more the job of political scientists. Political science, he said, “takes history and sees what kinds of causes were behind the event, not just the facts.” (I imagine most historians are seething after reading Fred’s take on the discipline).

Chronology and Continuity: Cathy believed that “history was chronology.” For Bill and Jane, history was done by interweaving “chronology and continuity.” As Wineburg writes: “Chronology, for both Jane and Bill, underlies continuity–the way in which the present connects with to the past and moves, in Jane’s words, ‘forward into the future.'”

As you can clearly see, these four students tend to approach the teaching of the past differently. They have been shaped by their given field of study–all fields that fall under the “Social Studies” umbrella.

We will see how this develops, and how these teachers understand “causation,” tomorrow. Stay tuned!