Thinking Historically

Historians are about a lot more than impressing readers with cool facts about the past. To know the import of those facts, and to put them into a coherent story, they must develop essential skills in critical thinking and organization. In simple terms, they sift through a great deal of raw data, evaluate it, and create lucid reports for others to read. In history terms, our data are primary sources, our evaluation method rests on assessing the influence of various elements of the specific context, and our “reports” can be anything from research papers to books on a single topic, called monographs, to digital and media artifacts.

While it is the point of this chapter to expand on the above sentence, you should read it resting in the knowledge that learning to succeed as a history student will provide you with many of the same skills needed for professional success. As do those in any number of professions including law, business, and teaching, historians frequently begin with data that can be both extensive in quantity and contradictory in quality, and so must determine what is most important; they have to resolve contradictions and ultimately tell a coherent story, one that their audiences find compelling and meaningful. In essence, history requires essential critical thinking skills, including judgment, synthesis, and creativity.

As is often the case, the best way to begin to develop higher-order thinking skills is break them down into manageable chunks and practice putting them into action. This chapter starts by defining the term history and explaining a bit about how the discipline of history is structured. As scholars, historians must build on the knowledge of others, rather than pursuing stories and information for its own sake. They participate in the academic project—a phrase often used to capture what scholars do when they consider how new knowledge relates to current understandings. The nature of historical thinking—evaluating and ranking types of evidence, figuring out how to weave together fragments of meaning, knowing when to recognize historical fallacies and other sloppy thinking patterns—forms the core of the chapter. Once you’ve oriented yourself toward some of the main ideas behind historical thinking, you’ll be ready to move onto the next section—Reading Historically—which focuses on perhaps the most essential skill historians (and history students) possess, that is, how to read all sorts of documents critically.

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How History is Made: A Student's Guide to Reading, Writing, and Thinking in the Discipline by Stephanie Cole; Kimberly Breuer; Scott W. Palmer; and Brandon Blakeslee is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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