History Teachers Help Students Become Wise

What is the study of history? The study of history comprises three questions:

  1. What happened?
  2. Why did it happen?
  3. How have conditions changed or remained the same?
Lincoln's Civil War Proclamation

Lincoln’s Civil War Proclamation

Studying what happened means looking at a “snapshot” of time (e.g., at such-and-such a time, so-and-so did…). Studying how conditions change and remain the same means comparing one period with another.

We can study these three questions on a broad scale, such as by studying eras and historical periods. We can study them on a small scale, too, such as studying events of last week and their effects. We study them in terms of people, politics, and technologies, societal perspectives, philosophies, religion, and in many other ways.

Historian Peter Stearns explained that

the past causes the present, and so the future. Sometimes fairly recent history will suffice to explain a major development, but often we need to look further back to identify the causes of change. Only through studying history can we grasp how things change; only through history can we begin to comprehend the factors that cause change; and only through history can we understand what elements of an institution or a society persist despite change.

Here’s the rub. Studying what happened at a particular point in time doesn’t tell us much. It doesn’t help us make decisions unless we know what led to that particular point in time and what effects it produced. It doesn’t lead to understanding or, ultimately, to wisdom.

Understanding how and why one event happened helps us decide whether or not another situation, or the current situation, is similar. If the conditions that produced the two situations are not similar, we cannot say that the situations are similar, even if they look the same on the surface.

On the other hand, if the conditions producing two situations are similar, and if the actions taken during the situations are similar, then the resulting effects are likely to be similar, too, which leads to good decision making.

What does this mean for history teachers?

First, it means that the “snapshot” approach to teaching history doesn’t have much value. Perhaps we can get our students to remember that on March 5, 1967, something important happened, but they won’t understand why it was important or how the information is useful.

Second, it means that teaching history is fundamentally about analysis, about critical thinking. Critical thinking is a skill that can be taught. History teachers, therefore, are teachers of critical thinking.


At the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Michael Scriven and Richard Paul defined critical thinking as follows.

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness.

Ok, the definition is a bit “thick,” but it sounds a lot like the three questions I proposed at the beginning. Also, note the comment that we use these critical thinking skills “as a guide to belief or action.”

In short, when we help students learn and use critical thinking skills to study history, we help students learn to make positive, productive choices that lead to wisdom, success, and happiness.

And that, friends, is an awesome responsibility.

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