From the President
Recalling What We Do: Some Habits of Mind Historians Keep Hidden
Kenneth Pomeranz, December 2013
All this past year, I’ve wondered whether to devote my columns to practical issues or intellectual ones—and have often tried to combine them. This final essay tries yet again, by continuing a theme from last month: the importance of articulating, in the classroom and elsewhere, what is distinctive to our discipline, and how making that distinction clear can help fortify our place in the curriculum. Some of this parallels what the AHA’s Tuning project has been doing, an upcoming discussion at the Social Science Research Council in December (just about the time you receive this), and what lots of us are doing in the classroom and for a wider public.
When asked why history is important, we often focus on background knowledge: Students should know why privacy is a particularly touchy issue for many Germans, why a nice-sounding phrase like “urban renewal” doesn’t make everybody happy, or why differences between Shi’a and Sunni Islam matter politically. And we often stress how history develops general skills that we share with other humanities and interpretive social sciences: close reading, critical thinking, communication skills, and so on. I endorse those claims, but also believe we sell ourselves short if we don’t give equal emphasis to skills and knowledge more particular to history. I suspect that we often don’t do so because many of these habits of thought are, precisely, habits; we forget that, as Sam Wineburg puts it, historical thinking is an unnatural act, and thus fail to name some of the “unnatural” metaskills that underlie good research and teaching.
For example, historians don’t just do contextual reading more habitually than other disciplines, we create the context as we accumulate sources. You can read Locke in a philosophy or political theory course, but you probably won’t read in a way that asks questions such as: Why was he writing from the Netherlands, and how might that matter? What were other people saying at the time about children, and how were they using the word “freedom”? The reading skills we can convey to students matter more than ever in a world that bombards us with decontextualized information. Anyone with Internet access can download an editorial from Al Ahram and perhaps dissect its argument, but you need more than that to know whether that editorial represents significant new developments in Egypt.
As this suggests, history is also unusual—though not unique—in its emphasis on juxtaposing very different kinds of materials, some of which were not intended to be dense with meaning. Historians might read biological or theological arguments about free will or political pamphlets for insight into the society that produced them, but they also look at that society’s food prices, arrest records, dime novels, and brochures for new housing developments. Here I would emphasize not just the variety of interpretive skills such sources need, but the act of putting them together: What do I do if popular culture is full of reactions to a crime wave that is not reflected in the statistics? When can I be confident that fewer reports of a miracle indicate less widespread belief in it? What other kinds of evidence would I need? It is interesting that in a recent survey of employers, “the location, organization, and evaluation of information from multiple sources [emphasis added]” was cited as one of the most-needed skills—trailing only “critical thinking,” “communication,” and other skills taught in many disciplines.1
But what we most obviously emphasize more than other disciplines is change over time. While the importance of understanding how societies change over time may seem too obvious to mention, it’s worth emphasizing that it involves distinctive skills, which are sometimes elided in nonhistorical approaches. Think, for instance, of models of equilibrium-seeking markets, which might tell us that a “wrong” price caused by discrimination will be corrected, but not whether this will take days, years, or generations. I am reminded of my seatmate on a recent plane ride, an ardent charter school advocate who had clearly studied the issues. He was unmoved when I told him that most studies show charter schools perform worse than regular schools more often than they outperform them, because he knew that “eventually” competition would weed out the low performers. Only after a while did he concede the value of supplementing his model with concrete case studies of competition, and that the benefits of competition might emerge too slowly to compensate for undermining existing schools in the meantime. In short, thinking about time scales is less habitual or universal than we may think—even when dealing with relatively measurable kinds of change occurring in fairly stable settings.
In fact, we might emphasize that we help students think not only about processes of change over time, but also about the interaction of many such processes occurring on different scales. In the classroom, I have gotten quite a bit of mileage out of a simple example: asking students what the development of mechanized transportation meant for horse-drawn transport. Most quickly answer that it destroyed or marginalized it, as did eventually happen. But for roughly a century after the first railways appeared, demand for horse-drawn transit grew—because cheap long-distance shipping meant that far more freight and people moved, and had to get to and from the railhead somehow. That makes intuitive sense, too. We can easily come up with many, many cases in which the short- and long-run consequences of a development run in opposite directions. Historians teach that the question “What was the outcome?” involves a time frame. There are many answers, each correct in different time scales and for different purposes.
We are hardly the only scholars who think about these issues. Some of our social science colleagues do so, as do natural scientists who examine predator-prey relationships (in which a population surge in one species affects the other, creating predictable oscillations) and climate change (in which the many feedback loops are not yet so well understood). Historians are, however, unusual in thinking about these kinds of dynamics for humans, who often make decisions while focusing on one such trend without the other. We are likewise unusual in how central the choice of periodization is to what we do. These are, as I argued in last month’s column, things that we should present more self-consciously when we address our students—treating them, in that respect, more like our colleagues. (Part of my presidential address next month will make a similar argument about our geographic frameworks.) And, beyond the classroom, it’s easy to see how people working toward any number of public and private goals (like school reform) would benefit from learning how to habitually think across time and consider more carefully what spans of time to think with, and how to combine them.
Last but not least, there is the construction of the actors in our histories. The educational psychologist Ola Halldén, looking at Swedish schoolchildren, found that their first attempts to explain historical events almost always focused on individual motivations: Columbus’s desire for fame explains trans-Atlantic contact, for instance. When pushed to go beyond this and consider structures, Hallden found, students’ next step is usually to attribute individual-like motives to large groups of people: “Germany resented Versailles” or “peasants wanted equality.”2 This is often the point at which we encounter students, and much of our effort, quite appropriately, goes into showing them why this is problematic.
Meanwhile, though, we often write and (especially) speak as if certain collectivities had viewpoints, made choices, and so on—we have to do so. Even if we knew what every single American thought and did about the election of 1828, a complete picture thereof would be a Borgesian nightmare, not a readable history. Part of what we get from being immersed in a problem and period—and of having worked on and read lots of histories of other problems and periods—is a sense of how to use this kind of shorthand responsibly: how to simplify, that is, without oversimplifying, and how what constitutes an oversimplification varies with the specific questions we are exploring. This is an immensely valuable “real world” skill and a fascinating academic pursuit, yet we rarely talk about how we do it—at least not with our students—or highlight it as a transferable skill we can teach. Perhaps because of this, I have encountered many very bright students who think that political scientists, economists, and others oversimplify, while historians tell the “full story.” Reminding them that we don’t is often the start of a good conversation about how we decide what distinguishes proper from excessive simplification.
I am not even sure that this skill has a name. But I think we often teach it well—and ought to say so. In general, we have more nice tools in our toolbox than we often realize, not being a very methodologically self-conscious discipline. And if we point to those tools more often, others might decide they need them, too.
—Kenneth Pomeranz is the president of the AHA.
1. See the report summary from the Association of American Colleges and Universities.