Historical Thinking And Other Unnatural Acts

This is a terrific book from Sam Wineburg, who is a Professor of Cognitive Studies in Education and an Adjunct Professor of History at the University of Washington in Seattle. He asks why we should teach history, and what is it good for? His answer is, “My claim in a nutshell is that history holds the potential, only partly realized, of humanizing us in ways offered by few other areas in the school curriculum. I make no claim of originality in arguing this point of view. But each generation must ask itself anew why studying the past is important, and remind itself why history can bring us together rather than–as we have seen most recently–tear us apart.” [p. 5] He next talks about a usable past. “By tying our own stories to those who have come before us, the past becomes a useful resource in our everyday life, an endless storehouse of raw materials to be shaped or bent to meet our present needs. Situating ourselves in time is a basic human need. Indeed, it is impossible to conceptualize life on the planet without doing so. But in viewing the past as usable, something that speaks to us without intermediary or translation, we end up turning it in to yet another commodity for instant consumption. We discard or just ignore vast regions of the past that either contradict our current needs or fail to align tidily with them. The usable past retains a certain fascination, but it is the fascination of the flea market, with its endless array of gaudy trinkets and antique baubles. Because we more or less know what we are looking for before we enter this past, our encounter is unlikely to change us or cause us to rethink who we are. The past becomes clay in our hands. We are not called upon to stretch our understanding to learn from the past. Instead, we contort the past to fit the predetermined meanings we have already assigned it.” [pp. 5-6]

The major point of the book is that people don’t think historically by nature. They have to be taught to think that way. “Historical thinking, in its deepest forms, is neither a natural process nor something that springs automatically from psychological development. its achievement, I argue, actually goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think, and one of the reasons why it is much easier to learn names, dates, and stories than it is to change the basic mental structures we use to grasp the meaning of the past. The odds of achieving mature historical understanding are stacked against us in a world in which Disney and MTV call the shots.” [p. 7] He quotes the Italian historian Carlo Ginzburg, “The historian’s task is just the opposite of what most of us were taught to believe. He must destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past because they come from societies very different from our own. The more we discover about these people’s mental universes, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” [p. 10] He also quotes historian Robert Darnton, “Other people are other. They do not think the way we do And if we want to understand their way of thinking we should set out with the idea of capturing otherness. … We constantly need to be shaken out of a false sense of familiarity with the past, to be administered doses of culture shock.” [p. 10] Another historian he quotes is Richard White: “Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present, for if it is familiar why revisit it? The past should be so strange that you wonder how you and people you know and love could come from such a time.” [p. 11] His point on this is, “If Ginzburg and others are right, the goal of historical study should be to teach us what we cannot see, to acquaint us with the congenital blurriness of our vision. Even the notion that historical knowledge should serve as a bank of examples for contemplating present problems has come under challenge. The more we know about the past, claimed the philosopher of history Louis O. Mink, the more cautious we should be before drawing analogies to it. Historical knowledge in Mink’s view can sever our connection to the past, making us see ourselves as discontinuous with the people we study.” [p. 11] He further makes the point that ” ‘presentism’–the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present–is not some bad habit we’ve fallen into. It is, instead, our psychological condition at rest, a way of thinking that requires little effort and comes quite naturally.” [p. 19]

The book is about teaching history and provides a number of vignettes to illustrate how students and historians think about historical events. The vignettes illustrate how someone trained in historical thinking approaches historical situations quite differently from someone untrained, even when the trained person’s knowledge about the historical situation is roughly comparable to the untrained person’s.

We often hear about how today’s generation is lacking in historical understanding, as if it’s something new. Dr. Wineburg tells us about one of the earliest empirical studies on historical understanding, a 1917 study by J. Carleton Bell and David F. McCollum, which looked into how to assess historical understanding. They came up with five methods:

“1. ‘[T]he ability to understand present events in light of the past.’
“2. The ability to sift through the documentary record–newspaper accounts, hearsay, partisan attacks, contemporary accounts–and construct ‘from this confused tangle a straightforward and probable account’ of what happened. This is important, especially, because it is the goal of many ‘able and earnest college teachers of history.’
“3. The ability to appreciate a historical narrative.
“4. ‘[R]eflective and discriminating replies to ‘thoughtful questions’ on a given historical situation.’
“5. The ability to answer factual questions about historical personalities and events.” [pp. 31-32]

As part of their study, Bell and McCollum tested 1,500 students from fifth grade through college level on their historical knowledge. They found only 16 percent of students below the high school level, 33 percent of those in high school, and 49 percent of college students answered the questions correctly. “Bell and McCollum indicted the educational system and its charges: ‘Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.” [p. 32] Wineburg goes into various assessments since then, all with comparable findings. Concerns about the level of historical knowledge among students is nothing new.

The first vignette concerns the clash between the British and the Minutemen on Lexington Green, and it involves a letter from Joseph Warren, president of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress, to Ben Franklin. Wineburg discusses how “Jack,” who is a specialist in Native American history, approaches the letter. He tells us, “What is most important to him is not what the text says, but what it does. … First of all it casts the confrontation at Lexington not as a minor squabble between nervous farmers and tired soldiers, but as a meeting of the broadest import–a fateful clash between representatives of the king and those of the thirteen American colonies. … It is not the literal text, or even the inferred text (as that word is commonly used), that this historian comprehends, but the subtext, a text of hidden and latent meanings. Subtexts of historical documents can be divided into two distinct but related spheres: the text as a rhetorical artifact and the text as a human artifact. In the first sphere, the text as a rhetorical artifact, historians try to reconstruct authors’ purposes, intentions, and goals. But the subtext goes beyond a reconstruction of the author’s intentions, beyond the use of language as a linguistic technology for persuasion. In fact, many subtexts include elements that work at cross-purposes with authors’ intentions, bringing to the surface convictions authors may have been unaware of or may have wished to conceal. These aspects fall into the second sphere, the text as a human artifact that frames reality and discloses information about its author’s assumptions, world view, and beliefs. Such a reading leaps from the words authors use to the types of people authors are, a reading that sees texts not as ways to describe the world but as ways to construct it.” [pp. 65-66]

The second vignette looks at Abraham Lincoln’s words during his debate with Stephen A. Douglas in which Lincoln makes statements many construe as being racist. We learn, “Judging past actors by present standards wrests them from their own context and subjects them to ways of thinking that we, not they, have developed. Presentism, the act of viewing the past through the lens of the present, is a psychological default state that must be overcome before one achieves mature historical understanding. … To think contextually means that words are not disembodied symbols transcending time and space. We cannot separate Lincoln’s words … from the occasion on which they were uttered (a debate with Stephan A. Douglas, Lincoln’s rival for a fiercely contested senatorial seat), the location of this debate (Ottawa, Illinois, a hotbed of antiblack sentiment), the kinds of people who witnessed the debate (largely supportive of Douglas and suspicious of Lincoln), and the fact that both Lincoln and Douglas addressed these people not as prophets or moralists but as candidates courting votes. Nor can we ignore what Douglas said to spark Lincoln’s response, or the words Lincoln uttered immediately following the passage quoted. And what about the other things Lincoln said in Havana, Illinois, a week earlier, or in Freeport, Illinois a week later? Such considerations just begin to scratch the surface when we think about what we would need to create a historical context for the brief passage.” [p. 90]

The book is very enlightening, and gives us excellent examples of historical thinking and how trained historians use it to analyze historical situations. It’s an excellent aid for students of any type of historical event. It is an excellent primer on how to think about historical documents and actors as well as providing tips for those teaching history. It’s useful for students of history who aren’t going to be teaching others in addition to teachers. I can highly recommend it.



  1. It’s a really good book for the reasons you mentioned above. Proud to say I own a copy.

    It’s beneficial as well from a teaching perspective, glad you got a lot out of it.

    1. Thanks, Rob. Like you, I really enjoyed it.

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