Historical Thinking ≠ Do As I Say, Not As I Do

We are in the penultimate month of the school year which means it’s almost time for self-reflection, but not yet!  Let’s wait until June for the looking back/looking forward post.  This will be another abbreviated post as we are just finishing up regional scoring of New York State Assessments and, after checking thousands of bubble sheets, it’s hard to think at all, much less think historically, but let’s give it a try…

TimelineAt our Teaching American History meeting this month, Dr. Randi Storch of SUNY Cortland challenged us to question the periodization of history present in most standards and curriculum documents for American History.  Her point is that when an organization like the National Assessment for Educational Progress (NAEP) chunks history into defined periods such as “Modern America and the World Wars (1914 to 1945)” or “Contemporary America (1945 to present)”, decisions are being made about what is important and what is not, about what is considered a turning point and what isn’t, about what stories are taught and what stories are left out.  Implicit in the chunks is an interpretation or an argument about the past and about what we should be teaching our students.  WWIIThe decision about when a period “begins” and when it “ends” is an artificial construction.  Yes, World War II ended in 1945, but does that mean that it was the end of an entire era?  I doubt that my dad, returning from the fighting in Italy, suddenly looked up from the deck of his troop ship and thought, “Zounds!  Modern America is over!  We are now Contemporary America!!”  I’m not even sure what the difference is between “modern” and “contemporary.”  In my dictionary they show up as synonyms.  So what’s the big deal?  The deal is that these periods are someone’s interpretation of what was going on in the middle of the 20th century and what was important and what wasn’t.  We need to understand the decisions and interpretation behind these designations.

As teachers of American History we must understand that all of history is interpretation.  Consider Bob Bain’s work where he distinguishes between H(ev) and H(ac), History as Event versus History as Account.  We can never really know History as Event, because we only see the evidence that is left from that event.  Even if we are witnesses to an event, we only see our little piece of the puzzle.  All of history is someone’s account of it, from their perspective, based on their interpretation.  If we accept NAEP periods, textbook timelines, state standards or core curricula without trying to understand the interpretation that is implicit within them, then we are not thinking historically.  And if we aren’t thinking historically, how do we expect our students to develop a critical thinking habit of mind to question sources, to contextualize events and people and to analyze the interpretations of others?  This is not a “do as I say, not as I do” process.  If we want our students to question historical interpretations, then so must we.  We have to be models of the thinking we want to see in our students.  That doesn’t mean we reject the NAEP periods, textbook timelines, state standards or core curricula because they are interpretations of history.  But neither can we accept them without question.  We need to be aware of the perspectives and underlying assumptions and arguments that we present to the students in our classrooms.

EuripidesI was going to end this post with a quote from Euripides (Greek tragedian c. 480 – 406 BCE – not American History, I know, but I like the quote!)  “Question everything.  Learn something.  Answer nothing.”  Cool, huh?  However, in trying to find the exact source of the quote, I found that it is attributed to Euripides, but that it is actually “unsourced.”  We don’t actually know where it came from.  So maybe it was the local wine purveyor in the agora who actually said it.  We probably will never know for sure.  It’s still good advice, though, and we need to model this kind of questioning mindset for our students!

Project Director, Teaching American History
Teacher Trainer, Curriculum Instruction and Assessment

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