Sunday, December 11, 2011

Good at History

Here is an essay that I wrote for one of my classes about what it means to be good at history (the subject I intend to teach).

Good at History

            “What good is this going to do me?”  It is a very annoying question to most teachers but the question is a fair one.  Perhaps in a perfect world all students have a natural curiosity of history and value its study as an intrinsically good activity, but that cannot be expected.  Many students are not going to be naturally interested in the subject.  There is an answer, however, and it has to do with mastering the skills involved in history.  Someone who is good at history will be able to find a way to make it useful for them.  Studying history provides students with a grab-bag of tools they can use from evaluating evidence to tell a good story to a sense of their place in the general flow of human civilization.  The qualities of being good at history can be divided into two categories: one has to do with applying cognitive ability to the subject, the other is essential concepts someone must understand.  People who are good at history display higher order thinking to historical topics and are aware of challenges specific to history like understanding historical context and being able to evaluate information without having to be judgmental.
            I am sure that most of us would agree that being good at history means more than just memorizing facts about leaders, dates where lots of important people did something or famous speeches.  As enjoyable as those things can be for enthusiasts they are insufficient for making one what could be considered good.  Ideally, rather than training students to repeat information learned in class teachers could bring students to cognitive domains that are higher up Bloom’s Taxonomy.
            Consider the following quote from Brave New World by Aldous Huxley:

At breakfast the next morning, "Tommy," some one says, "do you know which is the longest river in Africa?" A shaking of the head. "But don't you remember something that begins: The Nile is the …"
"The - Nile - is - the - longest - river - in - Africa - and - the - second - in - length - of - all - the - rivers - of - the - globe …" The words come rushing out. "Although - falling - short - of …"
"Well now, which is the longest river in Africa?"
The eyes are blank. "I don't know."
In the above quote the child Tommy is simply recalling a fact that was taught him without understanding it.  If he understood the meaning of the sentence he had memorized he would have been able to answer the question that was posed to him.  Unfortunately he was only trained to recite a fact.  He is not good at geography, he is good at memorization.  Someone who is good at history should be able draw logical conclusions from the facts they hear and not just recite them.  Being good at history means that when you learn that Abraham Lincoln was president in the 1860s you can then come up with his name when asked to say as many government officials of the 19th Century you can name.
            While history is generally categorized among the humanities it is partly scientific.   Interpretation is often open-ended but it bound by what is made possible by the evidence and what can be rationalized as the best explanation.  Abraham Lincoln’s exact thoughts about slavery are open to interpretation among historians but it would be factually incorrect to speculate that he was a Nazi.  Because the National Socialist Party did not exist during Abraham Lincoln’s lifetime the evidence does not permit this interpretation.  Someone who is good at history understands that there are many ways to interpret an event but those interpretations are limited by the evidence.  They can evaluate how well an explanation accounts for the evidence presented.
            Those who are good at history have a sense of how things came to be and have a good idea about how things could have been different if different events had happened.  Essentially, someone who is good at history can make intelligent counterfactual claims.  When making these claims one does not have to pretend to know exactly what would have happened if Truman did not use atomic weapons but they should be able to show their awareness of the effect that event had in history by altering events that are connected to it.  What would be interesting about this exercise is how someone justifies the changes they list.  Why do they think Julia and Ethel Rosenberg would not have given atomic bomb information to the Russians?  Why do they think America would have been more willing to use atomic weapons during the Cold War?  This step is similar to picking historical interpretation in that there are a wide variety of reasonable possibilities but limits to what the evidence would allow.  For instance, someone who is good at history would not argue that a different decision from Truman would have lead to Germany taking over Europe because Germany had already surrendered by the time the bombs were dropped on Japan.
             In addition to climbing the ranks of cognitive domains there is still the second category of essential historical concepts.  One who is good at history understands the need for context in understanding the past.  This means that they can put themselves in the mindset of someone who lived in the past based on what facts they know about the time in which they lived.  They can imagine themselves as someone who has never been on the internet, seen a movie and does not know what quantum physics is.  They can imagine themselves as someone who grew up in a Native American tribe and lives in a wigwam.  Then when they learn about the person’s actions or how thoughts they can make sense of them in respect to the mindset they know they had.  Understanding context also means you have to suspend severe moral judgments (not to say there are no objective morals, just that applying them to people long dead does you no good in understanding them) because that can inhibit the process of possessing their mindset.  Good historians must step out of their favored position of hindsight during this process and think as if they were someone directly involved in the events they are studying.
            One thing that I hope ties all of these features together is that they all have useful applications outside of history class.  The student who wonders what studying the past will do for him personally has only to consider the tools he is acquiring in the process.  He can consider the views of others, make informed decisions about counterfactuals and in doing that learn from his own past, and he can draw facts from the information he is presented with to better understand it rather than parroting what he has heard.  All of these skills are useful for him to manage his social life, work in a professional environment and even come up with routines to handle his personal affairs more efficiently.

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