Thinking About Historical Thinking
On the first day of class I have students write a two page history of the United States before we've done anything. And I have 15 years of these stories now. The story that over seventy percent of my students are telling is a story you can summarize it as this happened and then this happened and then that happened. Just a random listing of factual events that has no meaning at all. Well if history has no moral meaning and law what's the point of study? And in fact that's where most students are at. They don't think there's any point in studying it. Where did they get this notion in history is just one doggone thing after another for too many classes reading history textbooks because that's what a textbook is. This happened and then, and then that happened, and then you take a test to show people that you learned your history. We're really shooting ourselves in the foot we history teachers. I'm just pulling a rug from under history the way it's commonly taught. And I would like to do some thinking about how to make history a form of moral inquiry once again where we ask, "What's the story here? And what does it mean coming up with a new way to teach history overnight? And I made a lot of mistakes. My first thought was "Oh we'll just sit in a circle and look at documents and it will be a lot of fun." Well it wasn't fun. It was agonizing. It's kind of like teaching your kids how to drive a stick shift. If you're an experienced driver, driving a stick shift is the easiest thing in the world, and you don't even think about it. You can move the gears and smoke a cigarette and drink your coffee and look over your shoulder and drive 75 miles an hour. Do all that as no big deal. But try to teach that to a 16 year-old and you realize all the complicated movies that are involved in driving a stick. The problem with having experts teach kids is that they're experts. They think that all these complex intellectual moves are just easy and natural when they're actually difficult and have to be learned. I had to come up with some way to uncover the complicated intellectual moves that are required to make sense of the past. And this took research. It took thinking. It took discussions with my colleagues but eventually I came up with six intellectual moves to teach an introductory level history course. And another set of moves to teach at the intermediate level, and another set of advanced level. And when I was first doing this I felt almost alone but today thankfully there's an entire movement in history teaching and learning where we're together working to define these moves. It's really exciting, intellectual work. And it gave me the name for my method of teaching the traditional method is called coverage. In the history class you covered huge expanses of time at a breakneck speed. Well I call my method Uncoverage because we're uncovering the things that make history, what it is as an intellectual discipline influence really bombed the inductive bible study net that I learned in IV. This new net that places an emphasis on application, the third step in the inductive method. So in my history classes we're always trying to connect history to present-day life and consider the question, "How do we want to live but do not yet live, and what can the past teach us about these questions?"