The history of historical thinking

The meaning of studying and writing history changed episodically from ancient times until nearly the twentieth century. But generally, historians from the time of the Greek patriarchs Herodotus and Thucydides through the leading historians of the romantic age Jules Michelet, Thomas Carlyle, and George Bancroft practiced history quite differently from modern methodology, in service of their understanding of history as a revelatory narrative of philosophical or moral truth. Christian scholars in the ancient world, such as Josephus, through the early modern era, like the Pilgrim William Bradford, used history to reveal the unfolding of God’s plan for the world and the devotion or rebellion of people to his will. Secular scholars used history to reveal the greatness and progress of particular governments and societies, typically places to which scholars felt connected. Edward Gibbon contrasted the faults of ancient Rome with the virtues of eighteenth-century Europe. Gibbon closely scrutinized ancient sources and displayed his research for readers. But he fit with others of his and past ages in communicating about the past as a narrative account. History was closer to literature or poetry than it was to science, in terms of methodology. If there were gaps or contradictions in the historical record, the historian had broad license to imaginatively or instrumentally fill the gap in.

The practice of history changed significantly with the ideas of Leopold von Ranke, who argued that history was indeed a science in the way that scholars should carefully study evidence and present an understanding of the past as it actually happened. For Ranke, there could be no gap between the past and modern understanding of it, if an historian did thorough and honest research. Ranke inverted the practice of history from using it to reveal philosophical truth about the present to witnessing it, like journeying in a time capsule, as if there were no present-day perspective at all.

Ranke’s influence introduced the modern concepts of evidence and research to historical practice, but around World War II, historians continued to focus largely on political, military, or religious institutions and leaders as their subject matter. But beginning in the 1960s, historians refocused inquiry onto ordinary people. The French Annales school emphasized the importance of understanding long-term social change and introduced the usage of quantitative evidence. A few decades later, new social historians in Europe and North America adopted the technique of studying local communities to learn about groups previously left out of history, like workers, immigrants, slaves, and women.

In conjunction with the rise of new social history, historians also increasingly communicated interpretation of the past not as a story-telling narrative but as a political argument. In part this methodology was a process started by Ranke in his emphasis that historical research, as a science, should pose a hypothesis, investigate evidence to sustain, overturn, or revise the hypothesis, and reach a conclusion based on the force of the evidence and logic. But the new history took the form of argument also in response to the social protests that erupted beginning in the 1950s, to which history, it seemed, could provide a vital perspective. For example, C. Van Woodward’s Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) studied the rise of post-Civil War segregation in America to emphasize the shallow roots of “separate but equal” law under legal challenge in the 1950s.

A more troubling consequence of the rise of social history was the undermining of historians’ traditional assumption since Ranke that there was ‘objective truth’ about the past towards which evidence-and argument-based scholarship should strive. The politicization of history resulted in recognition that there could be multiple ‘truths’ about the past, and it was only the political, or, alternatively, the poetic power of the author that determined what ‘truth’ was.  Jean-Francois Leotard represented postmodernism’s critique of ‘truth’ as entirely a social construction, and Hayden White claimed, as had pre-Rankean historians had practiced, that history-writing was not really different from literature.  Historians generally did not surrender their claims to objectivity, though many leading historians who were once New Left radicals, and their protégés today, enthusiastically assert their scholarship is politically engaged.

A surprisingly recent debate among historians especially in the United States is whether, when teaching history, emphasis should be placed on delivering content knowledge, or on skills development (the United States is probably behind this trend’s development in Canada, the U.K., and Western Europe, but ahead of any such development outside the West). This debate emerged partly as a result of the so-called ‘history wars’ of the 1990s between conservatives who believed that historians, especially those receiving government funding, should incorporate a civic or even patriotic aspect to their scholarship and teaching, and liberals who, at least partly influenced by the upheavals of the 1960s, believed historians should use scholarship and teaching to criticize American institutions.

Historians engaged in the new field of scholarship for teaching and learning (SoTL) have sought to reconcile the differences between conservative and liberal critics of historians’ responsibilities. SoTL practitioners assert that historians indeed do have a civic responsibility, part of which is to broaden historical awareness generally in a society in which knowledge of the past is statistically and comparatively low. But SoTL practitioners assert that historians have an even greater responsibility to teach the actual skills, not the (often partisan) knowledge that historians possess. Part of that has to do with the overlap of the skills of an historian and the skills of a participating citizen in a democracy, as Peter Stearns noted in a 1998 essay, “Why Study History?” such as identifying evidence-based claims, and knowing how past generations reacted to challenges similar to those in the present. And part of SoTL’s redefinition of ‘doing history’ is driven by recent public skepticism that students in history classrooms actually learn anything, as the American Historical Association’s ‘Tuning project’ on assessment has acknowledged.

A few questions about teaching history arise from my thinking about the development of history before and since Ranke’s “scientific turn,” and before and since the more recent interrogation of what studying history means represented by the SoTL movement. I will teach an American history survey course in June, which may present an opportunity to experiment with some important concepts. Two questions I have concern whether and how students bring to the class a preconceived, philosophical narrative of American history – as ‘progress,’ ‘decline’, ‘opportunity,’ ‘oppression’ – as was common among historians of different subjects largely through the mid-nineteenth century, and was resurrected, obliquely, by partisan historians, such as Howard Zinn. My assumption is that students have either no concept of a narrative of American history, or that their narrative of American history is, overall, positive. I base this assumption on anecdotal evidence from prior classroom experience that students’ experience in a college history class shocks them, owing to its criticism of American institutions: the criticism either reverses the information they have learned about American institutions in middle and high school, or it validates their own experiences in modern America.

A third question I’m curious about concerns whether students’ understanding of historical context affects their judgment about an historical event’s moral quality, good or bad. I have in mind the issue of Abraham Lincoln’s expressions about race that Sam Wineburg explores in “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts” (Phi Delta Kappan, 1999). As Wineburg and others argue, a good historical skill is the ability to interpret something done in the past within historical context, which enables a student to understand an historical actor’s actions rather than caricaturing them. To take that a step further, I wonder if the same kind of empathy-building exercise, one accomplished in the history classroom, could then be presented to students as an exercise in rethinking something or someone controversial in the present, whom they have, for personal or political reasons caricatured. I hypothesize that this kind of leap, from developing empathy about someone’s perceptibly distasteful, immoral, or irrational actions in the past, to developing empathy about a similar or analogous person, event, institution, or other thing in the present (or very recent past), would be a real struggle for students to achieve or be comfortable with.

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