Wineburg — Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts (chapters 1 and 2)

February 10th, 2010 by Ben Allen Leave a reply »

The first chapter of the Wineburg selection was interesting for me in the way that it traced out expert behavior in essentially moral terms — that to be an expert in a field means having a basically humble stance toward the subject matter. To know how to do history becomes important, then, since dealing with the knowledge that we are inextricably bound by our own historical position and that we necessarily have to attempt to unstick ourselves from that position, regardless of the impossibility of actually transcending our material circumstances, requires a “humility before the narrowness of our contemporary experience and an openness before the expanse of the history of the species.” This is fascinating to me; it is the study of history as philosophy, but philosophy in the very old, very humanistic “how shall we live?” sense. The teaching of history (and the humanities in general), becomes a means to make people who are better at life; it’s ethics as craft.

The second chapter then reads to me like practices that encourage that humility, in the form of teaching that’s meant to draw out complexity rather than answer questions. As with most of the material on teaching that we’ve read in core 1 and so far in this class, the question I’m left with is whether there’s any space right now in the public schools we have now for generating complexity, or if the grim presence of standardized tests focusing on more easily assessable metrics has squeezed out the opportunity for humanistic, ethics-as-craft teaching altogether.



  1. Heather Heim says:

    I think the most disturbing scenario Weinberg describes is Colleen’s interpretation of the text (17)that mirrored the textual interpretation she tried to distance herself from, but she was so used to hearing only one historical voice, that she unwittingly became that same inaccurate voice.
    Having students interact and experience primary texts is the best way for learning to take place. Yet teaching in high school in the instant gratification world of teenagers, it’s hard to get them to read anything, primary, secondary or not. There’s also the time constraint–one must have the time to think and the time in the classroom to allow silence and deep thinking to take place, and I think, at least in my job, it’s rush, rush, rush. I even had an administrator say to me that teaching is entertaining. I want to slow down and often do, but the clock is ticking.
    In a Socratic Dialogue workshop I attended, the teacher stressed experiencing the documents with the students not as an expert, but as a fellow explorer on a journey of discovery (that takes time too), and it’s hard with time constraints and the world of teaching to the test, but it’s such a refreshing experience not to have all or any of the answers for a change.
    Weinberg says: “The instruments we abandon are the ones that enable us to see” reminds me of Faulkner’s “The Bear” when the boy gives up all his instruments: the compass etc. and makes himself vulnerable, that moment of surrender allows him to see the bear, Old Ben.

  2. There are definitely several ethical dimensions to the position that Wineburg describes. Being distant from the past makes it more difficult to understand why certain events occurred as they did. (Spatial distance can cause similar difficulties, as Wineburg recognizes.) And our present circumstances may be unable to give an accurate characterization of the ethical value of an historical event. Only by understanding “what it is like” to live when and where the event occurred can we be in a better position to evaluate the ethical properties of events that occurred under those circumstances.

    With respect to teaching, the problem that Steve points to in graduate history programs is a problem across the board. To be a college teacher, you (usually) need a phd. Generally, that’s the only real requirement. But getting a phd rarely involves any teaching requirement. Phd programs do not teach you how to teach. While they teach you to be an expert in your field, being an expert does not guarantee that you can teach other people (novices) about that field. (Even worse, some programs that do have a teaching element are getting rid of it, in favor of a more research oriented program.)

  3. Steve Brier says:

    The challenge, from my perspective, is how we change the way we teach social studies and history teachers in graduate school. Speaking as a historian, the problem as I see it is the failure of most graduate history programs to spend any time teaching students how to teach history. Unless and until that changes we are doomed to repeat the same limited, ahistorical notions of history in future generations of students (unless we assume we can fix this in in-service projects and programs).

    Wineburg provides a number of interesting starting points for that reconsideration, not least of which is to his call to throw the litany of facts overboard in favor of teaching historical interpretation and close reading of primary sources. And note that he rarely speaks about technology being the panacea (which it isn’t); it’s just one good way to teach students to understand historical process and become expert in historical interpretation.

  4. Ben Allen says:

    I suppose I have a darker than necessary view of the state of schools right now; the impression I get (largely from reading Kozol) is that in the contemporary school environment, time that’s not preprogrammed and at least nominally connected to test scores is considered time wasted. All secondhand info, though…

    Networking schools together seems like a fantastic idea, especially now that the bandwidth and equipment for videoconferencing is fairly cheap. I think it’d be especially interesting to have classes where kids from distinct geographical areas work together…

  5. Kasey Powers says:

    I think that most teachers would agree that there is a place for it. Where is the question? In many cases I think it comes down to a combination of a supportive administration, and building in support for teaching in this way. I wonder if using technology / computers would be a place to help expand this. Because of the state of our education system, the standardized tests can’t be ignored, but maybe a network of schools where students can work together online to really learn about those topics in which they are most interested. A network of schools would allow a larger student pool, and a larger group of teachers from which to find those with an expertise in many different topics.

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