History Past: Historical Thinking and Historiography
I may have made the mistake of beginning this week’s reading with George Iggers’s Historiography in the Twentieth Century. And while I did enjoy some aspects of this particular scholarly work, it was dense at times and somewhat confusing at others. I recognized many of the names Iggers mentioned but felt overwhelmed by the sheer number. Thus, I was pleased when I picked up John Tosh’s Pursuit of History and began to peruse the first three chapters. Indeed, Tosh is not so far removed from Iggers: he also traces the history of history (if you will) but does it in a way that is much more accessible and interesting. Perhaps this has to do with writing style? Or my own personal preferences? I will be interested to hear what my classmates have to say about the two in comparison and contrast with one another.
I enjoyed reading William J. Novak’s, “The Myth of the ‘Weak’ American State,” particularly because I felt he did an excellent job of supporting his main argument and refuting the myth. I honestly do not believe I had ever really heard of this myth before. Certainly, reverence of our Founding Fathers and what they accomplished as revolutionaries in the 18th century has been taught to me from my earliest days and as Americans, we are known for our pride in our roots and beginnings. But is it truly Americans who suggest that the American state is “weak”? Or is it individuals from other nations or other time periods, even? I suppose that is my biggest question for Novak and what perhaps left me must befuddled this week.
The reading that stuck out to me most readily was the textbook excerpts from Kyle Ward. As a future educator myself, I have already experienced the frustration and dissatisfaction that is the textbook industry and I was interested to see precisely how much the telling of each historical event changed over time depending on the time period when each textbook entry was published and printed. Unfortunately, history as a subject is not so cut and dry as many like to (mistakenly) believe. Rather, history is much like other subjects in that it is open to interpretation and it is the ideas and notions of whomever is relating a certain historical event that ultimately decides how precisely such history will be presented and then studied or absorbed. I felt this related directly to Iggers in that he spends a great deal of his book exploring the controversy over history as a science or history as an art. Tosh similarly studies this and both seem to agree that it is impossible to pinpoint history as one or the other. In fact, Tosh writes “…the truth is that history cannot be defined as either a humanity or a social science without denying a large part of its nature…History is a hybrid discipline…” (53). Why then, do we still teach the “facts” of history from elementary through high school? Why are we not allowed to stretch our minds, interpret history ourselves, and think critically about the past until we get to college (if even then)? These are the questions that frustrate me as a future history teacher and my aim is to one day allow my students to study history in a way much different than what is typically driven into our heads from a very young age.
August 30, 2014 @ 8:52 pm
Laura, I have to agree with you in regards to the formula of history that we are spoon fed from elementary through high school. The downfall of teaching (in my opinion) was the introduction of the SOL’s. These limit the interpretation of historical events by many future historians, and in doing so, we are losing many bright young minds to other careers, since they are not able to interpret history for themselves and their students. History is ever changing, but many, many times, it comes in cycles, and ironically, repeats itself. I have to also agree with both Tosh and Iggers, in their conclusion that history is a “hybrid discipline.” It’s complicated to say the least. This is evident in the way that some historians are “accepted,” while others, despite their extensive research and new findings, are often scoffed at, and we history students, when we mention these new interpretations by newer historians, are told, “Oh that just revisionist history.” It is confusing to say the least.
September 1, 2014 @ 9:39 am
Laura, in you, I think I see a budding history teacher willing to take her student’s beyond the “facts.” Daring students to think critically about history, to analyze events in terms of societal or cultural impact, like Christopher Columbus’s treatment of the indigenous population, can be daunting. A student might ask you sometime, “Why should I care about history? It’s just the story of a bunch of old dead men.” Teachers, I believe, need to be ready to answer this question from the teenagers they attempt to teach – an answer that ultimately comes, I believe, as they challenge students to think beyond the “facts” over and over again throughout the school year. It may even include a unit on the history of the study of history. 🙂
September 1, 2014 @ 1:43 pm
I feel the same with you that Tosh’s book is more accessible. And I find it is interesting that in Simplified Chinese version, Iggers introduces his book by stating “the key topic of this book is the challenge raises by post-modernism to classic historiography.” This indicates that Iggers’ book is not just an introduction of historiography like Tosh’s. I don’t know why Iggers didn’t put this statement of his topic in English version. Anyway, I guess the intentions of Tosh and Iggers are different and thus make Tosh more accessible as he are willing to make his book accessible, as he says “an introduction to history in the second sense [the representation of that past in the work of historians].”(Tosh, iii)
September 1, 2014 @ 8:28 pm
Laura–Ward’s collection of textbook excerpts certainly was both entertaining and thought-provoking. It made me question the history that I was taught as a young student. To what extent are we, as primary and secondary school students, taught history as a story rather than as an interpretation? And, likewise, to what extent should educators strive to expose their students to the more difficult aspects of history? It’s much easier to see Columbus as a gallant conquistador rather than a villain…especially when we get a special day off in his honor!