Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts–Part X

We continue with Chapter Six of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past: “Peering at History Through Difference Lenses.” In the last post we met four novice teachers: Cathy, Bill, Jane, and Fred. You can get up to speed here.

Wineburg’s argument in this chapter is that not all students trained in Social Studies certification programs are equipped to teach history. Social Studies, of course, attracts students from a host of disciplines: history, civics/politics, geography, anthropology, economics, and even psychology.

Let’s meet these students again and see how their disciplinary perspectives have prepared them to teach history.

Cathy (anthropology and archaeology major): She does not see history as something to be “endlessly pondered over in some kind of pageant of competing interpretations. Cause could be determined authoritatively by probing the interrelationships among the land, the climate, and human development.” Wineburg refers to her as an “environmental determinist.” Everything in her courses can be explained by climate and geography. She teaches about countries and nations as if they exist in a “temporal vacuum, decontextualized in relation to the past and responding lockstep to a generic set of geographical and geological imperatives.”

Fred (politics/international relations major): Like Cathy, he was also ill-equipped to teach history. In a lesson on the Industrial Revolution Fred did a decent job of discussing economic developments, but mentioned nothing about the social dimensions of the shift from the cottage system to the factory system. There was little factual information in his presentation. In fact, Fred was more interested in comparing the Industrial Revolution to other revolutions such as the American Revolution or the French Revolution. As Wineburg notes: “Lacking the knowledge of the contextual factors that make these events more different than similar, Fred presented all revolutions as close cousins.” Fred, like Cathy, believed that his students had learned history when they had memorized dates and facts. (Remember, he was the teacher who thought that historians deal with facts and political scientists deal with interpretations!). He did not have the training to teach history as competing perceptions of the past. He was concerned with citizenship education more than historical thinking.

Jane (American history major): Unlike Cathy and Fred, Jane understood causation as a “problem to pondered, studied, argued, and advocated, but never to be known with certainty.” Her lesson on the “Roaring Twenties” dealt with a host of social, cultural, economic, and political issues. She used music (jazz), images, dance, and fiction to “breathe life into the facts of history.” Jane’s goal was to reconstruct a lost world for her students and she seemed to do it well.

Bill (American studies major): Bill, like Jane, understood that historical causation was a “messy” issue. When asked to discuss the causes of the Great Depression, he responded that “there is never one cause.” Like Fred, Bill seemed only concerned with economic and political issues in the past and how they related to the present. He began each class with a discussion of current events. (Fred did the same thing). In the end, Bill focused solely on politics and economic issues, but he did so through competing interpretations and a much deeper historical sensibility than Cathy or Fred.

Both Jane and Bill got nervous when they had to teach parts of American history that were not part of their undergraduate training. They worried that they did not know the facts. Yet, Wineburg notes, they were equipped with skills that enabled them to handle any period or era in history. They knew how to think about the past and they knew how to get their students to do the same. To paraphrase Nicolec, one of the commentators on a previous post, they knew that they were not there to parrot what was in the text book. They were not there to read a timeline. They were there to get their students to think like historians.

So what can we learn by studying these four approaches to teaching the past? Wineburg wants us to see that not all majors that fall under the larger umbrella of “Social Studies” equip teachers to teach historical thinking. “Social Studies” or “Citizenship” education are fields largely concerned with the present. For the advocates of Social Studies, the past is prologue. Teaching the past is necessary to provide some necessary background to preparing responsible citizens. This reminds me of the “world cultures” class in which the teacher begins with a few weeks on the history of China so that they can use the rest of the semester to talk about food, religion, traditions, culture etc… The goal, of course, is to create global citizens. Here’s a thought: why not teach a Chinese history course where the students get a rich and complex understanding of the way Chinese culture developed over time? Could this achieve the same goal of creating cosmopolitan citizens? I think so.

At Messiah College our Social Studies certification students are housed in the history department. They thus graduate with teacher certification and a full history major. Perhaps our greatest difficulty is getting our education department, the faculty who teach them how to write lesson plans, to understand the differences between the way historians think and the way practitioners of “Social Studies” think. Recently one of our majors complained that one of his education instructors critiqued his lesson on the Cold War by telling him that he should instead focus his unit on “cold wars.” If our student followed this suggestion, he would have to neglect everything he has learned as a history major about context, chronology, causation, and the fact that not all “cold wars” were the same. As this student rightfully complained: “I am not writing a lesson about ‘cold wars,’ I am writing about the Cold War.”

Wineburg’s chapter should help us see that teaching history and teaching social studies requires a very different way of thinking.