The Unspoken Politics of Teaching Historical Thinking

When historians think and write about teaching history, they commonly point out that history is not just facts, rather it is the interpretation of sources. Accordingly, they have increasing emphasized teaching “historical thinking,” the skills of doing history, in the last few decades. Some historians have suggested that a focus on historical thinking also circumvents political “debates over which facts to teach” (Kelly 2013, chap. 1), but teaching historical thinking is itself political, reflecting the politics of the historical profession without escaping the politics of differing interpretations of and goals for history.

Historians, of course, are aware of the politics around their profession. But their consideration of the politics of teaching history reflect the public discourse around which facts to include and whose history to teach. I have yet to see any reflection on the politics of the methods of teaching historical thinking.

One study of history textbooks suggested that “By reducing history to a series of inoffensive facts and figures, . . . [U.S.] textbook publishers are effectively judging students incapable of discussing and debating important topics and issues” (Lindaman and Ward 2004, p. xx). This bland pronouncement oddly ignores the very context that “textbooks are a quasi-official story, a sort of state-sanctioned version of history” (p. xviii) and that “textbook publishers have become averse to bold historical narratives for fear of being labeled as too liberal, too conservative, too patriotic, or too sexist and rendering themselves unattractive to buyers on the textbook market” (p. xx).

Education boards and state institutions, not students, are selecting the textbooks. Publishers are printing “bland” history because interpretation is itself a political act, an act they are trying to appear not to do. Publishers avoid creating opportunities for student debate because they are navigating the politics of who purchases their books. Whether students are capable of “debating important topics” is beside the point.

As historians proclaim, interpreting sources is all about contextualizing them. But choosing what documents to share and what context to include, especially in a classroom, leads to different conclusions.

The U.S. Declaration of Independence is a classic example. Do you simply give students the final, ratified document? Or do you include its revisions and the politics behind them? Do you trace how the U.S. Declaration inspired many other declarations of independence? Do you mention that the man who wrote “all men are created equal” enslaved his fellow humans and prompt students to consider who the author counted as “men?” Depending on which context you provide, the U.S. Declaration could be a model of international human rights or a self-serving, hypocritical statement. (Or, as a corollary, you can consider who the subject of the image at the top of the page is.)

Historians would, of course, prefer to give all of this context (and more), but the choice of documents and context, especially given the limits of wordcounts and class time, is inherently political. Context itself tends to undermine “great men” narratives of history and the idea that people make their own moral and economic destinies totally unfettered.

The bodies choosing textbooks realize the politics of having students interpret documents with historical thinking, perhaps more as a gut-reaction than a considered response, but this reaction influences publishers to limit opportunities for interpretation.

Additionally, historians have shifted to teaching historical thinking in part because of their own professional politics. In an era of shrinking humanities enrollments, they want to make a case that they’re teaching more than facts (see Calder and Steffes, 2016). But more fundamentally, teaching historical thinking demonstrates how facts are made in a way that supports the historical profession’s conclusions.

This doesn’t mean that historical thinking isn’t valuable or that it’s just some cockamamy scheme. It’s stress on interpreting sources to understand the past is what historians do, and the skills of interpretation, contextualization, and analysis are crucial in any field. However, historical thinking reflects the politics of the historical profession and influences the politics of the conclusions it leads to.

Perhaps historians should embrace the politics of historical thinking rather than try to hide their politics behind historical thinking. Historians know things because of how they think, the sources they use, and the context they provide. Historical conclusions are political, but some are more substantiated than others.

Works cited

Calder, Lendol, and Tracy Steffes. “Measuring College Learning in History.” In Improving Quality in American Higher Education: Learning Outcomes and Assessments for the 21st Century, edited by Richard Arum, Josipa Roksa, and Amanda Cook, 37–86. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass, 2016.

Kelly, T. M. “Thinking: How Students Learn About the Past.” In Teaching History in the Digital Age. University of Michigan Press, 2013.

Lindaman, Dana, and Kyle Roy Ward. “Introduction.” In History Lessons: How Textbooks from Around the World Portray U.S. History, xvii–xxi. New York: New Press, 2004.