Historical Thinking = Habits of Mind or What Does it Mean to Be Well-Educated?

This will be a short, pithy post, my friends.  We are all up to our collective eyebrows in preparing for, administering, scoring and recovering from NYS Assessments, so you will see no lengthy verbiage from yours truly.  You’re welcome!

CapAndDiplomaI have had reason this week to wonder what it means to be well-educated.  Do you know someone that you would describe as well-educated?  What qualities and characteristics does that person possess?  Is it factual knowledge?  Lots of knowledge of a wide range of subjects, or deep knowledge in one focused area?  Advanced academic degrees and a lengthy resume?  The ability to use sesquipedalian vocabulary?  If we want our children to be well-educated, what do we want them to know and be able to do?  What do we want for our students and, ultimately for ourselves and our society? 

I came across an essay by Alfie Kohn that helped me think about the question of what it means to be well-educated.  The essay, from 2003, also appears in his 2004 book, What Does It Mean to Be Well-Educated.  It’s an “older” essay, and, yes, he can be controversial, but he made some interesting points.  Toward the end of the essay he states that to be well-educated “is to have the desire as well as the means to make sure that learning never ends.”  He also mentions the idea of developing certain habits of mind, including the value of raising questions about evidence (“How do we know what we know?”), point of view (“Whose perspective does this represent?”), connections (“How is this related to that?”), supposition (“How might things have been otherwise?”), and relevance (“Why is this important?”).

HistoricalThinkingI immediately see the link between these habits of mind and historical thinking.  Historians are concerned about sourcing and contextualizing evidence.  They are concerned with understanding the point-of-view, the perspective, of historical figures.  Historians analyze the relevance and significance of historical people and events and how they are connected to each other and to us.  Learning is as much about asking the questions as finding the answers.  I think studying history is all about developing habits of mind, practicing historical thinking skills, in order to continue to explore and learn.  We will never know it all; even “experts” don’t know EVERYTHING.  But we can adopt the disposition that we can learn from all kinds of people in all kinds of situations.  We can aspire to be well-educated.  To remind myself, I have posted this James Thurber quote over my desk:

“It is better to ask some of the questions than to know all the answers.” 

I’m going to keep asking lots of questions.  Let me know what questions you’re asking!

Project Director, Teaching American History

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