Thinking about Thinking Historically

Historical thinking involves more than just learning the “facts” (names, dates, events, what some call the “substantive history”) of the past.  To be a historian involves interpreting these facts by using several different tools (or using the “procedural knowledge” employed by historians).  Historical research begins with posing a question—such as “Was Abraham Lincoln a racist?” or “What made Shuffle Along such an influential Broadway show?”  To answer these questions involves several steps.  Researching primary sources (documents, oral histories, personal writings) is the first step.  Collecting this evidence, evaluating its reliability (does the person who created the document have a particular axe to grind?), and choosing the best sources to address the research question comes next.  Setting each document in its historical context—what did other people write or say in this period; how does this document align with or differ from the general consensus?—helps us better evaluate the reliability of a primary source or at least understand the point-of-view being expressed.  Finally, the historian needs to interpret the evidence to offer a balanced answer to any historical enquiry.  Interpretation involves employing an empathetic understanding of why a person may have written or said what they did, what was the context in which they said it, and what audience were they trying to reach—among other considerations.

I’d like this course to address these questions:

  1. Can we tell a historical story accurately if we come from a different period and culture (i.e., for my research, can a white historian today tell the story of African-American theater at the turn of the century?)
  2. How should we judge oral histories or personal documents versus “factual” accounts? How do we value an individual’s perceptions of his/her actions versus documentary evidence?
  3. How can we judge historical narratives written during the period being studied—that may have privileged one perspective over another—and ensure that we aren’t replicating these same errors in our own interpretations?

Based on the readings, I think some preliminary answers would be:

  1. Historians need to bring empathy to their subject matter. Even people of the same ethnicity or social background today will have far different experiences than people of the same backgrounds a hundred years ago.  I strongly believe that we can overcome racial or social prejudices if we use historical methods to build understanding of the cultural norms of a different period and how artists overcame them.
  2. While oral histories often have “mistakes” in terms of a person’s recall of exact dates of events (compared to documentary evidence), I do believe they offer considerable value when compared with the “substantive history” and with others’ accounts who also witnessed the particular events. Understanding how a personal viewpoint developed and how that influenced a person’s subsequent actions is an important part of telling any historical story.  Feelings/viewpoints are a part of history as are “facts.”
  3. Understanding how previous historians shaped their narratives offers us a window into the cultural thinking of their day. They become, in effect, witnesses to their own time period—even though they may be writing about events that occurred hundreds of years previously.  Interpreting historical narratives as another set of “primary” documents—insofar that they illuminate the cultural prejudices and approaches of their era—is another way to understand an earlier time period.  Understanding how past historians failed to account for alternative narratives should make us humble in drawing our own conclusions and to question carefully whether we’re missing important documentary material that may not be “preserved” in traditional places.  We need to go beyond the standard archives to try to discover evidence that may have eluded past researchers.

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