Historical Habits of the Mind

Earlier this week I shared Kenneth Pomeranz’s December 2013 Perspectives on History column with the students in my “Teaching History” course at Messiah.  I have really enjoyed teaching this course this semester. The students have been great.  I appreciate how serious they are taking the material and how they have been approaching the course with a real sense of vocation.  I think most of them are ready to start teaching history in classrooms, museums, historical societies, and everywhere in-between.

Pomeranz reminds us that many of the habits of historical thinking that have become intuitive for those of us who spend time working with the past may not necessarily be intuitive for our students.  I need to remember this as I train history majors and future history teachers, but my students also need to remember this as they go into settings where children and adults have not been educated or conditioned to think this way.  Here is a taste:

When asked why history is important, we often focus on background knowledge: Students should know why privacy is a particularly touchy issue for many Germans, why a nice-­sounding phrase like “urban renewal” doesn’t make everybody happy, or why differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam matter politically. And we often stress how history develops general skills that we share with other humanities and interpretive social sciences: close reading, critical thinking, communication skills, and so on. I endorse those claims, but also believe we sell ourselves short if we don’t give equal emphasis to skills and knowledge more particular to history. I suspect that we often don’t do so because many of these habits of thought are, precisely, habits; we forget that, as Sam Wineburg puts it, historical thinking is an unnatural act, and thus fail to name some of the “unnatural” metaskills that underlie good research and teaching.
For example, historians don’t just do contextual reading more habitually than other disciplines, we create the context as we accumulate sources. You can read Locke in a philosophy or political theory course, but you probably won’t read in a way that asks questions such as: Why was he writing from the Netherlands, and how might that matter? What were other people saying at the time about children, and how were they using the word “freedom”? The reading skills we can convey to students matter more than ever in a world that bombards us with decontextualized information. Anyone with Internet access can download an editorial from Al Ahram and perhaps dissect its argument, but you need more than that to know whether that editorial represents significant new developments in Egypt.