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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
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