Historical Thinking Matters (Practicum Reflection)

Historical Thinking Matters was great fun for me, not least because I’ve never had a course on American History (OK, one survey level in college that we can’t actually count: horrible story about a lazy professor… involving pirates… )! I tried the module on the Spanish-American War. I didn’t have a textbook handy, so I took my cue from Mills Kelly and read Wikipedia to prepare.

The document investigations were more guided than I expected, leading the student to the inevitable conclusion that the Spanish-American War did not break out as a direct result of the destruction of the Maine. The module was also simpler than I expected, pleasantly so, providing enough guidance for the student to discover that the story of the Maine was tangled in a series of causes and motivations, but not offering or forcing judgement on what those might be. In this, the module answers Sam Wineburg’s injunction to provide history training as part of education broadly, helping students to look through heavily mediated texts like those provided by journalism and past simple causes. It also follows an an assumption in the readings that I found intriguing: young western students seemed to the VKP researcher-instructors to be infused with simple causal and teleological thinking (is it in the water?). The west is of course famous for this mode, but I want to know more about how it works.

The assignment/set of assignments that I came up with is unsurprisingly modeled directly on the HTM site because that’s what I was thinking about when coming up with something. My assignment focuses on Roman texts and the skills a student needs to assess them as historic documents. I would run a module set around Livy’s account of the 2nd Punic War because it offers some interesting opportunities to learn historical thinking (and because I’m a little in love with it).

Three phases would offer the student some valuable lessons. A piece dealing with sourcing and contextualising would drive home for the student the secondary-ness of Livy’s account (written, you know, like, 200 years after the battles it describes). Juxtaposing other source material and adding guided questions would draw out the primary-ness of Livy as contemporary literature (how does Livy’s text fit the Augustan/early imperial era? show contemporary Roman values, etc.?). Using HTM’s tactics, we could expose to students contemporary historical thinking by comparison with Roman historical thinking. This might involve juxtaposing other accounts of the war with Livy’s trying to line up parallel events where possible. We have a contemporary Greek source and at least one fragmented annal that was a source for Livy that would help students to see what kind of history Livy is “doing.” I like the third part the best. It has the least in terms of “agenda” and offers students the ability to find out what contemporary historical thinking is by contrast to that of other places and times. It will also invite them to question our own modes of thinking as forms of bias, which is never a bad thing.

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2 comments on “Historical Thinking Matters (Practicum Reflection)

  1. I really like the idea of exposing students to the types of historical thinking of the past, i.e. less focused on “facts” and more on creating a narrative or origin story. One great example that comes to mind is Geoffrey of Monmouth’s “History of the Kings of Britain,” which loosely combines historical events with characters like King Arthur and the heroes of the Trojan War. It would be a fun exercise to have students read passages of that book and compare them to “objective” histories, and have them work through the disparate aims of those writings.

  2. What a great idea; let’s team up and make it next year!

    That reminds me: Over Thanksgiving, I had a very interesting conversation with someone who is a very good engineer and very bad historian, who informed me that ‘Hercules was a myth and Alexander the Great was historical because “everything written about Alexander was based on fact”‘… yikes! šŸ™‚

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