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Historical Thinking is Unnatural, and Immensely Important: An Interview with Sam Wineburg
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January/February 2006 Historically Speaking 39 Historical Thinking Is Unnatural, and Immensely Important: An Interview with Sam Wineburg Conducted by Joseph S. Lucas For thepast twenty years Sam Wineburg, professor ofeducation at Stanford University, has studied what he calls "historical habits of mind. " He believes that when it comes to thinking about history, a huge gulfdivides professional historians from their students. A passionate advocatefor the importance ofhistory in our high school and college classrooms, Wineburg has published widely on history education and how it can be improved. His essays have appeared in journals such as the American Journal of Education, Cognitive Science, the Chronicle of Higher Education, and the Journal of American History, among others. His Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001) won the 2002 Frederic W. Ness Award from the Association of American Colleges and Universities for the book "that best illuminates the goals and practices ofa contemporary liberal education. " Joseph Lucas interviewed Wineburg in October 2005. Joseph Lucas: How do you carry out your research? Sam Wineburg: I put together sets ofprimary and secondary documents, go into historians' offices, and say, "Will you sit down and read these for me?" That's the basic idea, which obviously has countless variations. For example , we just completed a study in which we gave two groups of historians—those who profess a religious sensibility and those who claim they're agnostic or atheists—documents about the biblical exodus. Then we gave the same historians documents about the origins ofthe first Thanksgiving. We wanted to understand how people who are steeped in historical knowledge and skill read documents that call on different aspects oftheir core beliefs. Whenever I do this kind of study, I sit down with the historian and ask, "Tell me, when I give you these texts, what are you going to do? How will you approach them?" Back in the early 1990s I did a study like this with a group oftexts aboutAbraham Lincoln's ideas on race. Before reading these, one historian said, "This topic calls to mind the latest book by McPherson and Blight's new book on memory. And the classic book by Thomas Pressley." I asked: "Is there anything specifically that you'll do?" The historian—as historians tend to do—launched into a mini-lecture, holding forth on everything he knew. Here's where it gets interesting. The historian took the document and read the first words of the first sentence. Then he shifted attention to the attribution and dwelled on it forever. He situated the document in place and time, and came up with a series of questions that formed a kind of scaffold for reading the rest ofdocument. In other words, he brought a prepared mind to the body ofthe text. He had already identified the kind ofdocument before him, its genre, the implications of the genre, Sam Wineburg the normal expectations you would bring to the genre. At the end of the task I said to this gentleman, "I notice when you read, this is what you did. And yet when I asked you what you were going to do, you didn't mention this." And, in a kind of dismissive wave ofthe hand, he said, "Well, everyone does that." I gave the same document set to about fifteen of the students in a 100-level lecture course this historian was teaching at the time. Not a single one of these students did what their professor had done. These findings correspond to what I discovered when I first performed this kind of study nearly twenty years ago. Historians do this kind of reading of the source 99% ofthe time. And bright undergraduates on their way to good colleges—taking AP courses, scoring well on the SAT—do this less than one-third ofthe time (and when they do, it's usually because they've come across a pronoun and aren't sure what it refers to). The kind oftextured interrogation that comes automatically —but not naturally—to historians is a very special skill. Historical thinking is unnatural. It goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think. We are psychologically...