If you're seeing this message, it means we're having trouble loading external resources on our website.

If you're behind a web filter, please make sure that the domains *.kastatic.org and *.kasandbox.org are unblocked.

Main content

Thinking like a historian

KA's historian Kim Kutz Elliott discusses some of the basic skills for thinking like a historian.

Want to join the conversation?

  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    We all have a different lens through which we view the world. How do historians make sure that they do not inject their own biases into their work?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • duskpin ultimate style avatar for user Erin Ross
      On a slightly different note, I find it's valuable to read history from a variety of perspectives. Ditch your school textbooks and find books written by actual historians, preferably ones who don't agree on everything. That way you can weigh the evidence and come to your own conclusions.
      (8 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jasiyah Rice
    Wouldn't it be harder if a historian of a different religion, or race, etc. have a hard time keeping their own bias out of their "story"( history)?
    (8 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Josie Bigger
    would thinking like a historian help you in everyday life?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • leaf orange style avatar for user Jennifer Van Haaften
      As Benny said, checking sources and accuracy about statements is definitely a skill in everyday life. The social media, fake news, and biased news outlets show us that people's biases create headlines that are meant to make you feel a certain way, but it turns out the headline really has nothing to do with information in the article. Or you go to check two or three other news sources and find out a news story is a hoax. Sam Wineburg of Standford University has written books and articles about the lack of critical thinking taught in history classes in primary and secondary schools. Most recently he completed a study on students and discovered how vunerable they are to fake news. http://www.npr.org/2016/11/22/503052574/stanford-study-finds-most-students-vulnerable-to-fake-news He proposes that history classes need to show how historian critical thinking skills are useful for maneuvering in our current media climate.
      (5 votes)
  • blobby purple style avatar for user Paola
    How do the historians make sure there logic makes sense?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      "Making sense" is a very subjective thing, but, in general, a "professional" historian is part of a community of historians stretching far into the past. When she, or her colleaguse compares her logic to others who are currently working or in the past, whether something "makes sense" becomes apparent. The key is to work within a community of others who have like interests. It's when we invent histories based on fantasies of our own that we cease to make sense.
      (3 votes)
  • duskpin sapling style avatar for user Axels2art
    As a historian, she was saying that you want to make people agree with your theory using evidence. So my question is this... Is the goal to prove you are right or to find the truth about what happened?
    (3 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • starky sapling style avatar for user 20leunge
    What exactly do historians "do" in their careers? Do they write books? Teach? Travel around the world? Make documentaries? What lies ahead in the path of a historian?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      From the author:The short answer is: yes! Most professional historians do write books and teach -- those two things are the most important parts of being a history professor. But not all historians are professors! There are also historians who work at historic sites and national parks, researching more about what took place there and helping visitors understand the past. Historians could also make documentaries, as you mention, or consult with those who are making documentaries about the past. Lots of historians do travel around the world to do research, particularly those who specialize in the histories of other nations (as a Civil War historian myself I rarely get to go anywhere outside the United States for research!). Some historians are just writers, like David McCulloch and Barbara Tuchman, who have written important history books but aren't affiliated with universities. But anyone can "be" a historian by thinking like one!
      (2 votes)
  • mr pants teal style avatar for user Ekpe Nathaniel
    We all have a different lens through which we view the world. How do historians make sure that they do not inject their own biases into their work?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • blobby green style avatar for user Lizzie C
      Some history books that I have read that were more argumentative than informative in their nature actually had an introduction in them where the author would address some of their beliefs/biases on the topic that they were arguing, which made it even more fascinating to read and to see if you agreed with what the person was saying. I would say if an historian "injects" an obvious bias into his/her work, continue reading with a more critical eye. However, history is how we interpret it for the most part, and we all have different opinions, which is what makes it so fascinating!
      (2 votes)
  • winston default style avatar for user Sarah Kim
    wait, Lawyers are historians?
    Isn't historians just archaeologists??
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • blobby green style avatar for user MakaylaK
    if history means the past can one hour ago count? For an example if 5 hours ago i was studying for a test and then I go to school after getting ready and taking a nap. after getting to school i sit down in my chair and my test paper gets handed to me i remember everything a studied about and get an A+. Me remembering the past counts as remembering history?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
  • leafers ultimate style avatar for user ljgiebel
    why do they highlight u.s. history?
    (2 votes)
    Default Khan Academy avatar avatar for user
    • orange juice squid orange style avatar for user briancsherman
      While Khan Academy is available to the whole world, the material is presented based on United States educational standards. There is a group of tests for American high school students called the Advanced Placement tests. One of these tests is for U.S. History, and the information presented here is material that would be covered in order to prepare for that specific test.
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

- [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.