December 09, 2006

Good habits and the historical mind

I've just started catching up on my blog reading, and one of the places I turned to first was J.L. Bell's Boston 1775 (and I hope to get caught up at Bell's Oz and Ends sometime soon), where I found the recommendation for this "damn good article": "Teaching the Mind Good Habits" by Sam Wineburg, originally published in The Chronicle of Higher Education several years ago.

Wineburg is Professor of Education and History at Stanford University and author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past.

From the article:
When I've broached the topic of habits of mind with historians, I've often encountered an uncharacteristic reticence. Those who comment often refer to general critical-thinking skills that could apply just as easily to texts about astrophysics or wire-haired terriers as to historical documents. Yet across the many historians I've interviewed, from the most traditional diplomatic historian to the hippest adherent of the trendiest subfield, I've been able to discern the contours of a shared disciplinary culture. ...

For students, historical habits of mind constitute major intellectual hurdles. Students see their professors' thoughtsas finished products, tidied up and packaged for publicpresentation in books, articles, and lectures. Historians shield from view their raw thinking, the way they try to make sense of their subject.

We need to bring this messier form of expertise into the classroom. Students who believe that knowledge bursts Athena-like from the professor's head may never learn to think like historians, may never be able to reconstruct past worlds
from the most minimal of clues. We need to show students that the self-assured figure lecturing from the podium is not what a historian looks like in his or her office, puzzling through difficult texts.

In fact, the processes by which a scholar makes sense of material -- what I sometimes call the intermediate processes of cognition -- are powerful teaching tools. Historians can model in class how they read by having students bring in unfamiliar texts and demonstrating how to interpret and assess them. With a companion document, they can show the strategies they use to corroborate evidence and piece together a coherent context. Or professors could refer students to the useful Web site History Matters (, whose section on making sense of evidence includes acclaimed historians' discussions of how they evaluate different genres of primary evidence.

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