Today during our weekly history department meeting we considered a questionnaire submitted by one of our students inquiring into our political beliefs and how our politics shapes both how we teach history and how we interpret the past. It’s incredibly encouraging to see a student take an interest in his education and express curiosity as to how his teachers think about his/her respective subject. On the other hand, the questions reflected a view of history education that has become all too common and that is that historical understanding is little more than an expression of personal politics. I almost feel as if we failed as a department to properly convey just what is involved in thinking historically.
It is impossible to deny that our understanding of the past is influenced by our personal backgrounds and that includes our political views. But historical thinking involves much more than this. My history classroom isn’t a laboratory for competing political views. I ask my students to think like historians, which includes learning how to frame questions and how to go about searching for answers in the primary sources. It involves interpreting the evidence they uncover and trying as best they can to come to some conclusions. Those conclusions are then challenged and revised based on new questions, new ideas and new evidence. History is a process. I could inquire into how their personal backgrounds are influencing their reading of the sources, but I am not interested. My job is to assist them in working through the historical process. Right now my students are interpreting a collection of primary sources and thinking about whose vision of Reconstruction prevailed and why. Continue reading →