Math and Unicorns

On the day before school started this September, I got a haircut, something I’ve probably done on or around the day before school started for the last thirty years. But as I’ve just moved to a new city, I didn’t have a regular place to go. It is no doubt a sign of my advancing years, and my imminent ejection from the coveted “white males aged 18-34” demographic, that this year I sacrificed hipness for familiarity by going to a national hair-cutting chain.

The woman cutting my hair asked me what I do for a living. I told her I was about to start a brand new job as a history professor. I still grin every time I say that. No doubt the thrill wears off in time, but after mumble-mumble years of grad school and three consecutive bouts with the job market, I gotta tell you, it feels great to be a professor. OK, assistant professor, whatever. It’s faculty, baby, and that’s fine by me.

“Wow,” the barber said. “A history professor. You must be really good at math!”

That threw me. “Math? Why do you say that?”

“Oh, because of all the numbers you must have to remember.”

I don’t mean to make fun of her. The haircut I got was pretty good. And my comments about cutting hair probably sounded just as off base to her. But that conversation reminded me that what we do as historians is not what most people probably imagine we do.

I’ve been thinking about that again as I read Sam Wineburg’s terrific Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

I’m digging this book almost as much as I’m digging the phrase “Professor MacDougall.” Maybe I’m coming to the party late on Wineburg. Maybe everybody already knows about his work and the emerging study of historical cognition. But I can’t believe I haven’t heard more historians talking about it already—if only to tell me why it isn’t as nifty as it seems to me on first blush. (Like many good things in my life, I learned of the new literature on historical cognition through my wife, a high school history teacher who is beginning a PhD in education.)

Edit: L reminds me that we both heard about Wineburg’s book simultaneously, and it was from a historian—our good friend Brad Austin, who uses it in an AHA award-winning “Methods in Teaching History” course at Salem State College. Sorry, Brad!

Wineburg is an educational psychiatrist, and his subject is the things that people—students and teachers, mostly—do with history in their minds. How do we think about history? What are we doing in our heads, what cognitive moves are we making, when we think historically? What do students get out of learning about history, and what does the teaching of history contribute to our society? Once you read some of this literature, you can’t help but realize how sterile the existing debates over history standards and curricula and “what history is for” usually are.

Just one of Wineburg’s insights is the way historical thinking “cultivates puzzlement.” His first chapter, available as an online pdf, describes a high school student reading primary sources from the American Revolution, an elementary school principal discussing Laurel Ulrich’s A Midwife’s Tale, and a professional historian encountering documents from outside his area of expertise. (Other good sections include Primo Levi’s encounter with the student who swore that if sent to Auschwitz, he could have escaped, and a chapter about drawings that schoolchildren made of pilgrims and hippies.) One order of historical thinking, that first chapter argues, is the rationing of facts. A more prized kind of historical thinking is the ability to empathize with the past—to put yourself in the minds of historical actors. But what marks the most mature historical thinkers is their understanding that they cannot fully empathize with the past. No matter how many facts we marshal, we cannot know what it was to live in those times.

And that is what historians wrestle with: What is it that we do not know that prevents us from fully entering Lincoln’s or Charlemagne’s or Martha Ballard’s world? “A historian’s thought process is full of hunches and reverses, constant self-questionings and I-don’t-knows,” Wineburg says. What distinguishes the most advanced historical thinkers from the intermediate learners is humility—“humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of human history.” Elsewhere, Wineburg writes: “History teaches a way to make choices, to balance opinions, to tell stories, and to become uneasy—when necessary—about the stories we tell.” That unease is one of history’s great gifts.

Wineburg closes his first chapter with a nice story about Marco Polo. On his journey from China to India, Marco Polo ventured into Sumatra, where he came upon a species he had never seen: the rhinoceros. But Polo’s diary says nothing about the rhinoceros. Instead, he described his surprise at the poor quality of Sumatran unicorns. “They are very ugly brutes to look at,” Polo wrote. “Not at all such as we describe them when they let themselves be captured by virgins.” “History presents us with a choice,” Wineburg concludes: “to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more.”

[Crossposted, with some comments, at Cliopatria.]