Thinking like a historian
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Thinking like a historian
- [Voiceover] I think one of the most underrated skills for learning history is learning how to think like a historian. And what do I mean by "thinking like a historian"? Does that mean that you have to go out and buy a tweed jacket with some elbow patches and maybe grow a long, white beard and sit around all day pondering whether the Civil War was caused by slavery or states' rights? No, but you can try that if you want. But I would say thinking like a historian is a little bit like being a combination between a storyteller and a scientist . . . you're gonna see me draw a really, really bad beaker here there we go . . . some little fumes coming off of that. and a lawyer, maybe I'll put a gavel here. It's a gavel, not a croquet mallet or a hammer. So first let's start with the storytelling aspect. I think one of the most important things that we can learn from telling this story of history is that in a good story nothing just happens. Imagine a story where everything just happened. The story would be: the wind blows, the earth turns, right? No one is making those things happen and that's why it's kind of a boring story because it doesn't show cause and effect. And that cause and effect is really the backbone of history, right? And you would be surprised how often people can fall into the trap of telling history, this incredible story about what people have done in the past that has led to the society we have today as if it were kind of a laundry list of events that just followed one after another without any possibility of things being different. People will say, "and then World War II happened" or "and then the United States was born," right? Those statements are in passive voice because they don't talk about the people who make these things happen. And really, short of a natural disaster, pretty much everything happens in history because people made it happen. So when you think like a historian, you kind of think the same way that a novelist might think. OK, what is this character's motive? What are they going to do to make their wish come true? What are the influences that lead a person to make certain choices? And just like people make choices, nations make choices, right? World War I didn't just happen and just as people make choices, actions have consequences. You wouldn't write a story where a thief stole 100 million dollars and the police didn't even try to come after her. Neither can you write a story about history without talking about the effects that actions have on people. So that's the storytelling aspect of thinking like a historian. Let's talk about the scientific aspect. We often think of history as something that's pretty much done, right? It's a series of events that happened in the past and now we just have to memorize what happened so we can learn from it and maybe have a good idea about what to do in the future. But really there is only so much we can actually know about what happened in the past. And so historians always have to do a kind of research to understand what happened and get a better idea of what people were feeling. So just like scientists have theories, when historians think about the past, they're really thinking about theories as well. They're saying, "ok, I have a theory about "what caused the evolution of jazz in the 1920s." Why did jazz become a major popular form of music in the 1920s? Well, I'm gonna theorize it was because people were reacting to the horror of World War I which made so many people interested in kind of, staccato notes and discordant sounds. Alright, so that's a theory. Well, how do you go about proving a theory? And the answer is you do research and you consult evidence, right? And the way that you do that in history is usually by doing a lot of reading, right? You might say, alright well, let me take the letters of some jazz musicians from this time period and see what they write about. Maybe they write all about how they experienced battle in World War I and they were trying to reflect that in their music. Or maybe they write that World War I had nothing to do with their interest in music. Actually, they wanted to simulate the sounds of flight because they were so interested in modern forms of transportation. So our understanding of what happened in the past is always just a theory. I mean we have a pretty good idea of what was going on most of the time, but new information comes to light all the time, right? I mean people are always cleaning out their grandma's attic and finding some new documents and as the preponderance of the evidence shifts and changes so might our understanding of the past. The last aspect of thinking like a historian I want to talk about is this kind of lawyerly aspect. And what I mean by this is that historians are always making an argument. Just like a lawyer gets up in a court room and says, "Here's my idea, now let me support it "with the evidence from witnesses, from experts, "from objects we might have found at a crime scene." A historian is saying, "believe my theory. "Believe my evidence." And I think the analogy of law is really powerful here because you could see the same pieces of evidence used to support two different arguments. So for example, say there's, maybe . . . a sock that was found at the scene of a crime right, and here's our sock . . . I'm not a beautiful artist. But, maybe the prosecution tries to argue . . . that the accused must have committed this crime because the sock is his size. Right, the sock shows he did it. Whereas the defense might say, "My client never wears socks, "he always wears sandals." So it's clear that the sock shows that he couldn't possibly have been the one to do this crime. So that's how we end up with so many different interpretations of the same event. The task of the historian is to gather evidence and to present an argument that they think will best convince the public of their interpretation. And so these interpretations do change over time. So in later videos we'll get into the nuts and bolts of how you tell these stories and make these arguments. But for now, I just kind of want you to see that thinking like a historian is not something that only historians can do. It's actually a really useful skill for lots of aspects of your life. We tell stories, search for evidence, and make arguments in our lives all the time about things that we interact with every day like our favorite bands, our favorite foods, our political views, right? We base those on our own experiences, consequences in our lives and evidence that we see around us. And we can do the same thing for the past. It's not such a foreign country. What we have are the remnants of that past and the ability to interpret them.
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