History Slam Episode 162: Thinking Historically

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By Sean Graham

Last week at the National Archives in Washington, the President of the United States hosted what was billed as the White House Conference on American History, during which he said that, through his administration, the National Endowment for the Humanities had “awarded a grant to support the development of a pro-American curriculum that celebrates the truth about our nation’s great history.” This elicited the predictable reactions from cable news pundits, but it also served as the latest in a series of events that put history and historical education at the centre of partisan debates over questions of national identity. From statues to the naming of buildings to a nation’s founding principles, these debates have increasingly become pillars of political campaigns.

Over the weekend, I spent a lot of time reading partisan responses to the Conference on American History. What stood out to me was how beholden each side is to a specific, unimpeachable truth. On one side, the United States is a country founded on freedom. On the other side, the United States is a country founded on slavery and inequality. As I read these think pieces, I couldn’t help but think what would have happened if you traveled to Virginia in the 1793 and asked people about the country’s founding principles? The answer would certainly vary depending on who you ask.

In so many of these pieces, it was clear that there was a lack of historical thinking. When we talk about history in schools and public commemoration, there are key questions that need to be asked: whose stories are we telling? What perspectives are included? Who or what is missing from the story? These tenets of historical thinking are too often missing when partisan pundits debate history and its place within society.

In a rather serendipitous turn of events, this most recent debate corresponded with the Canadian Historical Association publishing a series of posts by Lindsay Gibson asking What is Historical Thinking? The 3-part series explores the origins of historical thinking, its development over time, and some of the most frequent criticisms of the approach. Personally, these were a welcome addition to discussions which added a needed perspective given the current climate.

In this episode of the History Slam, I talk with Lindsay Gibson of UBC about his series on historical thinking. We talk about the origins of the series, the differences in history education across the country, and the challenges associated with using a historical thinking approach. We also talk about how teachers approach history classes, our experiences with students, and the employment of critical thinking teaching techniques across disciplines.

Sean Graham is a historian with Parks Canada, an Adjunct Professor at Carleton University, and a contributing editor with Activehistory.ca

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