In my professional residency colloquium this semester, myself and my 3 fellow PhD students are required to read books and articles related to the Public History field. The first book we read was by far the best book I’ve read in my entire time as a graduate student of history/public history. My only regret is that I did not read the book before working in education in museums! I would highly recommend this book to all museum professionals, secondary history educators, museum educators, public historians, and all graduate students or people interested in pursuing public history or education.
The book is Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past, by Sam Wineburg. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001. You may even buy the book yourself on Amazon or Half.com and I highly recommend that you do!
Here are some of my thoughts and notes on the book as I was reading it, and as it relates to my own class and degree plans. These are basically just notes on chapter 1 on the text, and I hope to share more thoughts on this book in the coming days!
Sam Wineburg teaches Education at Stanford University and previously taught at the University of Washington in Seattle as an adjunct History instructor as well as instructor of cognitive studies of education. According to his Stanford faculty page, Winebug received a Bachelor of Arts in History of Religion and a PhD in Psychological Studies in Education. This background is evident throughout the book, and sometimes the educational psychology was confusing to someone with little “traditional” educational training.
The author approaches several questions I have wondered about both in my studies and in the beginning of my residency such as why people study history at all, what history can teach us not just about the past but about humanity and ourselves, how history should be taught, and what exactly history’s place is outside of the classroom. Wineburg’s analysis of how people learn, and how history has been taught in the past is enthralling. Additionally, the questions he asks, such as why to study history and what students should learn from their history classes, are intriguing and thought-provoking, especially to me as I teach my first class in a “traditional” classroom.
Section I is labeled, “Why Study History?” The first chapter in this section shares the title of the book, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.” Wineburg opens with the debate on national history curriculum standards and the question of “which history” students should be taught in the classroom. Traditionally, white old men were the focus of history courses, and with civil rights movements and women’s rights movements this has been called into question. To me this seems almost a moot point; is there a specific history to learn? Wineburg goes on to explain that history is grouped into the subject heading humanities, and this is true at Middle Tennessee State University as well as most other colleges and high schools. Rather than a string of events and people and dates, students should be learning judgment and critical thinking from humanities courses, history included. Additionally Wineburg claims that history can humanize us in ways that other parts of the curriculum cannot. The author even goes so far as to state that history can bring us together and not tear us apart as recent debates have done.
Related to this strangeness is also the development of feelings of kinship and relationship to people in the past that we study. A movement towards learning about humanity and social history is evident in the past several years, and perhaps because of this familiarity and my own personal training, social history is what I enjoy the most.
Even museums are moving towards this model; a session at the Tennessee Association for Museums last March focused completely on telling the stories of people who lived and their personal documents and pictures; using these primary sources, curators told the history of Tennessee through people rather than “facts and dates.” This builds a connection to the past that might otherwise be lost in Woodrow Wilsons, “one damn fact after another.” Even so teachers must be careful when instructing students in using primary sources. Wineburg’s example of an honors student who interpreted primary documents was particularly telling; the student reads the sources well and understands the content, but he distorts it with his worldview and bias to shape it to what he already knows.
is a great example of people interpreting what they see and learn through their own knowledge and ideas. It is an important thing to remember both in my own personal studies and in teaching undergraduates. Presentism, viewing the past through the lens of today, is another important concept for me. Trying to get students to remove themselves from the present and look back is a hard thing to do. When we covered the Mayans and bloodletting rituals this was particularly evident. My students were appalled and could not understand why people let mutilation and “torture” happen. It was hard to explain to them that their worldview and religions were different, and that perhaps the people who were being sacrificed or who were mutilating themselves to give blood to their gods did so willingly. At the same time, I tried to explain that they were people and not that different from us even though they seem so strange. I used the analogy of wrestling or cage fighting today and even the ancient Romans and gladiators to explain the allure of seeing executions. At the same time, there was a difference in Mayan culture because of the religious
meanings behind sacrifice and bloodletting rituals. Lastly, this chapter introduces context; this word is from the Latin “to weave together.” History and context are inextricable, and historians and teachers must connect the past into a pattern to understand what happened, why it is important, and what we can learn from it.
This book helped spark a lot of thoughts on my own study of history and how I teach the students in my World Civilizations class. I have often wondered why exactly it is that I study history and what I want my students to learn through my class. I do not necessarily want them to learn dates or a chain of chronological events, but rather I want them to understand the bigger concepts, critical thinking, globalization and worldview changes, how to study for a test, how to think critically, how to be a citizen in a global world, and to some degree empathy and understanding of difference in culture throughout the world. I wish I had more time to plan and to give them more resources that are “fun.” Next time I teach this course I want to give them more hands-on and interactive opportunities instead of just lecture with powerpoint slides of pictures.
I hope this has been a helpful review! This truly is one of the most enjoyable books I’ve read, as evidenced by the multitude of markings in the margins. If you have read it or have thoughts, please let me know in the comments section below!!