As I mentioned in my last post, I am a voracious reader. At any given time, I typically have two or three books on my nightstand or coffee table. And since 2011, I have chronicled the books I’ve read in my beloved “Book of Books.” (Seriously, I didn’t realize how much I cared about it until my wife and I evacuated prior to a hurricane and I realized I hadn’t packed it. Of all the things I had left behind, that little book was the one that I actually fretted about losing. Luckily, we were spared.)
Unfortunately, though, I don’t record the articles I read. As a result, I can’t remember when I first came across the piece by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke in AHA’s Perspectives, entitled “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” By now, many historians and teachers of history are familiar with the article, so I won’t offer a deep dive into it. For those who aren’t, the authors present five “habits of mind” that historians rely on when thinking and writing about the past. They are:
- change (and continuity) over time;
- complexity; and
It is not an understatement to say that the article truly transformed my teaching. I was already attempting to emphasize historical thinking in my classroom, tossing the textbook and instead feeding my students a steady diet of primary sources and excerpts from historical monographs, but in retrospect, I was merely fumbling in the dark. What this short piece did was give me a vocabulary—which I could in turn pass on to my students—to describe the specific intellectual “moves” that historians used in the excerpts we read. It also enabled me to “name” the moves that my students and I used when we discussed a source.
My pedagogical strategy with regard to this is simple but fairly effective. I introduce these as “The Five C’s of Historical Thinking” early in the year, and then I refer to them ad nauseam until students themselves begin referring to them. Inevitably, this is done in a mocking tone, as if to say, “If I show that I know what you’re getting at, will you please shut up about ‘The Five C’s’ already?!” Once that happens, I know it’s starting to sink in, and I begin to shift to eliciting the information from students: “What kind of argument is Professor X making here?”
When I first present “The Five C’s,” I teach them in the order above, which is slightly different from the order in which they are presented in the article. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, I begin with causation (which the authors refer to as “causality”) because, in my experience, this is the one that students already know. “Cause and effect” is familiar to them from elementary/middle school, even if tends to be a fairly blunt instrument in their hands. (Sure, I guess we can say that the assassination of Franz Ferdinand caused World War I… for now. But we’ll come back to that.) Once they’re thinking about history not as a list of people and events but as a set of relationships between them, I introduce change and continuity, which are less familiar but fairly intuitive for adolescents. From there, we’re on to context, which generally takes them a bit longer to grasp.
I introduce complexity and contingency, too, but I typically gloss over these on the first day. Because my high school courses span two semesters, understanding how to contextualize events and sources is the primary focus in the first semester, and in the second semester we return to complexity and contingency with more regularity. (This is where we might return to the causes—plural—of World War I, for example, and attempt to uncover the many contingencies that brought about the actual result, of which Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was only one.)
Paradoxically, this lesson (and its long-term implementation) both simplifies and complicates history as a way of thinking for my students. It demystifies the “unnatural act” of historical thinking to some extent by revealing that there are specific “habits of mind” that students can develop with practice; it challenges them by making clear that memorization of names and dates will not suffice. To think historically does in fact require one to think. (Students’ reactions to this revelation always depend on their particular academic skill-sets. Some—usually a precious few—are excited by this, while the majority who have grown comfortable with the memorization game over the years typically groan.)
Aside from changing my teaching, the article has also changed the way I think about writing history. I recently revised and updated my old Master’s paper, and I found myself reworking my argument along these lines. Whereas before I had merely hinted at arguments, I now found myself making a more cogent (in my opinion) claim about complexity and continuity. In other words, although we have long thought things have changed, in fact, my research reveals that the truth is more complex; things are more similar to the past than we have wanted to believe.
This is the kind of thinking I want my students to learn to do as well, even if my recent revisions of my own work reveal that developing these habits of mind does not occur overnight.