Great book for anyone who educates anyone about any kind of history

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.

In planning for my own World Civilizations I course, I wanted to introduce my students to the global culture through the class and stories that can be found throughout ancient and classical history. I want to focus on the connections of cultures through themes to humanize the people and civilizations we talk about.  Additionally, critical thinking and questioning are ground stones for my course structure.  Explaining to my students that the people in the past are foreign to us and some of the things they did were strange is not difficult; students often bring that up in class and claim that they find something about ancient cultures “weird.”  I try often to relate the actions and values of people from the past to my students here in 2011, which has presented some challenges.
Familiarity and strangeness are also explored in this first essay.  While the familiar history helps us to place ourselves in time and

Wineburg claims that “strange” history that excludes people and does not engage others.  I have keenly felt this with World Civilizationswhich many people find to be foreign.  However many people have an inexplicable love for Ancient Egypt as evidenced in popular culture, museum exhibitions, Halloween costumes, and countless other venues.  Perhaps in the case of Egypt the strangeness is what is appealing.  In my class I try to appeal to the interesting “strangeness” of each culture or group that we study in an effort to engage my students in conversation and thinking about these people, or even to get them to remember any little detail about these people from the past.  What will people in the future think about them?  Will they be considered strange by people looking back to the past in which we live?relate to the past the strangeness of the past does not always engage students or others.  Discarding history that we do not understand or that does not fit with our previously taught histories or ideals is very dangerous.  People such as Hitler or Stalin, or even modern day political parties come to mind; these people and groups have used history to fit their own worldviews, and contorted what they knew, or thought they knew, to fit what they wanted in their own agendas.

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.

I want my students to understand that everyone has a bias and a worldview that is present through even what claims to be the most objective writing.  We have also explored primary sources such as the Epic of Gilgamesh, Hammurabi’s Code, and the Chinese Peasant’s Protest, and primary images and artwork.  Through group exercises I have tried to explain that even though these are primary sources, the authors and artists also had an agenda to some extent that must be identified.  Especially with the Peasant’s Protest I believe that this information has begun to sink in with the students.  Again, this comes down to critical thinking and analysis, which is one of the most important skills I want my students to learn in my class.
Finally, there are three other concepts from this chapter that I particularly enjoyed.  Wineburg’s explanation of context and strangeness through Marco Polo’s excerpt on unicorns/rhinoceros

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!!

 

One thought on “Great book for anyone who educates anyone about any kind of history

  1. You can definitely see your expertise within the article you write.
    The world hopes for even more passionate writers such as you who aren’t afraid to say how they believe. All the time go after your heart.

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