American History and Civics

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Historical Thinking

Habits of historical thinking allow historians to pick apart an event and try to establish its importance in the context of the time, in hopes of better understanding how that event affects our current culture.

It’s important to practice the habits of historical thinking because it helps us to step outside of judgment based on contemporary ideals to place events in context. It also helps us to evaluate the impact of events on modern culture, which is one of the major reasons why we study history.

Here is how to engage in historical thinking.

Establish the significance of the event

Describe how the event or events impacted a large enough population to prove significant in the culture. History can be anything and everything that ever happened, so it is important to define how the event is significant in the culture you are describing. For example, many events in World War I were significant for the United States, but others were less so because they had less impact on our national culture. While those events are history, they aren’t as significant within the context we are studying.

Find primary sources

Primary sources are materials that were created at the time of the event. In other words, they present evidence of the event as it was happening, rather than second-hand approaches to the story. Primary sources are particularly useful in studying historical events because they help to present the actual context of the events.

Connect events to one another

Nothing happens on its own, so when history is presented as a long list of events, it loses some of its important meaning. When you are studying an event, it is necessary to see the event as connected to other events, movements, ideas, and people surrounding it. For example, the Civil War in the United States came about as a response to several years of complex political issues related to slavery, states’ rights, economic change, and many other issues. It is impossible to understand the Civil War when we see it as an isolated event.

Search for cause and effect

Many times people make choices based on their understanding of an event that happened recently. For example, if you get food poisoning at a restaurant, you are probably not going to want to visit that restaurant again. You are using one event to shape how you respond to the restaurant in the future. When studying history, it is necessary to try to understand what caused people to make the decisions that they did.

Remember: You have a perspective

You came of age in a new millennium. You’ve got the perspective of a person who has access to the internet, planes, freeways, cars, computers, and cell phones. You’ve got the benefit of being able to judge the past. Try to limit your judgment of people who didn’t have the perspective of having the event be over. When you’re studying history, it is necessary to try to imagine what it was like to live during the time that you are studying.

Use evidence to inform opinion

You are going to have an opinion on every event that you study. It’s human to form opinions, and it is necessary to judge. However, in historical reasoning we seek evidence to support our opinions. We cite our sources, and we try to be ethical about how and when we judge people who have gone before.

Key Terms

Some key terms from this reading are:

  • Context
  • Primary and Secondary Sources
  • Chronology
  • Anarchronistic


 

Reference

This writing is heavily based on ideas from The Historical Thinking Project and the Center for Historical Consciousness, http://historicalthinking.ca/about-historical-thinking-project.

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