Historical thinking is an epistemology, a way of knowing and making sense of the world. Virtually every writer concerned with historical thinking, from 1946 to 2019, agrees this epistemology requires more than the acquisition of specific facts. Historical thinking instead is the set of practices and principles writers of history use to craft accurate, engaging, relevant accounts of the past. Scholars in this field typically define the practices associated with historical thinking by observing how professional historians approach their discipline. However, the field is equally interested in students’ starting points during their initial forays into historical thinking.
What is Historical Thinking?
The exact characteristics of historical thinking differ from writer to writer, but a few core ideas are common across the literature:
- History is made, not found.
- Historical interpretation is based on careful examination of evidence.
- Historical thinking requires accounting for change over time, continuity, causality, contingency, and complexity.
- The past is both foreign and familiar.
- Historical thinking is unnatural, but learnable.
When historians like R.G. Collingwood, E.H. Carr, and G.R. Elton examined their own practices in the 1940s and 1960s, they observed that historians did not simply write a chronicle of facts but rather shaped and molded facts into a cohesive, meaningful narrative. History, they argued, is made, not found. Collingwood believed this practice required the use of intuition and imagination while Carr noted that historians’ perspectives were always involved in the telling. “The facts of history,” he wrote, “cannot be purely objective, since they become facts of history only in virtue of the significance attached to them by the historian.”
More recent writers likewise emphasize interpretation as an essential characteristic of historical study and writing. Linda Levstik and Keith Barton argue that narrative is precisely what distinguishes history from a chronicle of the past. A chronicle is merely a list of things that happened or people that existed. Doing history requires deciding which events, people, or ideas are worth including or excluding, explaining how these phenomena relate to one another, and articulating the impact, significance, or present relevance of aspects of the past. The narrative crafted from a writer’s decisions, explanations, and arguments is inherently selective and subjective. Bruce VanSledright writes:
“Thinkers—novice, expert, or somewhere in between—are never able to stand entirely outside their cultural assumptions in order to get a God’s-eye view of the past, to distinguish the ultimately important from the banal. Cultural assumptions saturate the interpretations of the historical thinker.”Bruce VanSledright, “On the Importance of Historical Positionality to Thinking About and Teaching History.”
The subjective nature of historical narrative does not mean interpretation is purely imaginative, however. Instead, historical interpretation is based on careful attention to evidence. Historians and students of history work with the “raw materials of history” (primary source documents and artifacts) to construct historical narratives. Mature writers of history do not read the evidence just for the sake of comprehending it. In his foundational work Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg found that practiced historians interrogated historical texts by sourcing, contextualizing, and corroborating the evidence available to them.
To source, the historians he interviewed attended to who wrote the document, when it was written, and the purpose of the text. Contextualization occurred as historians queried the meanings of unfamiliar words and the motivations driving a document. They asked, “What is happening around this document to make it what it is?” Corroboration involved cross-referencing. How did one piece of evidence compare to another? Historians use the similarities and differences between evidence to determine an accurate picture of the past as well as the motivations that drive people to give accounts in specific ways.
Interrogating the evidence can produce a wide variety of interpretations, but historians are usually attentive to five key themes in the past. The third core piece of historical thinking is the ability to take account of change over time, continuity, causality, contingency, and complexity. Change over time and continuity refer to attention to what is different and what stays the same in a place or over a period of time. Historians and students look for causality to explain why events occurred or what motivated a person’s actions or the development of an idea. Contingency refers to the notion that nothing in the past was fated. If things had happened differently, we’d be studying a different past. Finally, complexity runs through the other four themes. Change, continuity, causality, and contingency rarely have singular explanations. Instead, history is the study of the multitude of influences and factors that lead to events, shape a person’s life and motivations, or shape an idea.
The complexity of the past can lead students especially to experience the past as “a foreign country.” Yet for history to be relevant to the present, and enjoyable to study for students, the past must be understood as both foreign and familiar. Scholars concerned with this fourth core principle of historical thinking assert it is essential to both recognize the strangeness and difference of the past and find connection or resonance with the past.
Comprehending the strangeness of the past depends on the use of context and evidence and is an important component of navigating the “ethical dimension” of historical study. To understand the actions of people in the past, historians and students of history must take them on their own terms. This requires recognizing the differences between present and past as well as honoring the differences by withholding judgment about past actions, at least initially.
The latter is an especially tricky move for students who may find themselves either judging past actors based on present values or excusing past actions with the explanation, “We can’t judge them by our own standards.” Ideally, developing a deep understanding of a particular time period or place gives students the tools necessary to account for why terrible things happened in the past, the legacy of those events today, and what is owed to people who have suffered injustices, however distant.
For John Tosh, recognizing the foreignness of the past is a prerequisite to connecting the past and present: “Historical awareness means respecting the autonomy of the past, and attempting to reconstruct it in all its strangeness before applying its insights to the present.” Jumping too quickly to contemporary relevance can lead to presentism, an ahistorical view of the past. However, Wineburg points out that it is equally unhelpful to simply take the past “on its own terms” (as Elton originally advocated). We study history in part to understand the present and so it is insufficient to focus on the past’s foreignness alone.
The final key principle of historical thinking is that historical thinking is unnatural, but learnable. The skills and habits of mind detailed above are not innate talents of historians nor do they come easily to students. Instead, historical thinking skills are acquired through long training and practice. Much of the literature therefore focuses on the effectiveness of specific pedagogies and activities in increasing students’ capacity for historical thinking.
Researchers advocate the use of primary sources to engage students and build their ability to leverage evidence to support interpretations. They recommend reading multiple primary and secondary sources so students can become more familiar with how to spot arguments and make their own. Discussions help students interrogate the perspectives of people in the past and develop their abilities to recognize, but not immediately judge, differences between past and present. Change, continuity, causality, contingency, and complexity can be taught in myriad ways, from lectures to global online games. Thinking historically is not be an easy mode of thought, but neither is it impossible to learn.