Wednesday, July 28, 2010

How can we create Experience-based History?

Being a good historian is like being a long-standing traveler. Going back into the past frequently resembles arriving in a foreign country. Sometimes that country may look familiar--they speak the same language, they dress like you, they seem to have similar ideas about how people live in groups together. But sometimes you feel like this is a distant land--the language is unfamiliar, the customs alien, and the basic foundations of daily life simply don't make sense.

As the Wall Street Journal headline announced, "Lost in Translation: New cognitive research suggests that language profoundly influences the way people see the world." I think we already knew this, but it is always nice to have research. I met a man in Israel who works for Intel and is going to Phoenix for a year to work. He had a cultural exchange teacher who prepped him on "Common American/Israeli Cross Cultural Communication Mis-understandings." She gave him a crib sheet listing the most common miscommunications. My favorite was this one-- "When an American says, 'You obviously put a lot of work into this.' they mean 'This is terrible.' but an Israeli hears 'They really appreciate my work.' " I cringed on the truth of that one and vowed never to use that phrase again with anyone--Israeli or American. The better you get at learning how to travel, however, the better you get at understanding the different people you find yourself around, and, surprisingly, yourself, if you pay attention. That is one of the reasons history, and travel, is such a valuable resource to an experience-based learner.

But what is history? I remember asking my then four year old son this question decades ago. His response, "Sure, History, you know. Ba Ba Ba Boom--You're History." At this point I realized that he had been watching Arnold Schwarzenegger in the The Terminator way too much, but I also realized that one of the problems with doing history is that historians have different mental models about what history is than do non-historians. In order for a non-historian to really do experience-based history, they would have to change their mental models. This concept of mental models is famously portrayed in the video called "A Private Universe" where college graduates are asked to explain basic science principles but still hold onto their common sense, though incorrect, beliefs. But we all hold outdated mental models. One of my favorites just happened to me a few moments ago while I was watching New York 1 cable news--the sunset was announced for a certain time tonight. Except, the sun doesn't "set," and we all know that. Our language is a hold over from the geocentric, Ptolemaic universe where it appears to our senses (as it does to mine still, by the way) that the sun goes around the earth.
I find changing the mental model that someone holds is one of the most powerful forms of experience-based learning; I feel like my world has expanded when this happens. The universe gets larger for me because I have a new, and valid, premise at the base of my understanding which forces me to reevaluate what I thought I knew. And then--I am into the DKDK zone through yet another avenue.

So, I have been trying to figure out what are the most common misconceptions of the mental model called "history." What I will offer here is three that I think I see regularly in hopes that I can open a dialogue that everyone can add to. I think we can then start to look at some of the implications of how we teach history now, and how we might make it more experience-based.

1) History is NOT the past; it is the stories we tell ourselves about the past.

If you listen to people talk, they use the word history as being synonymous with the past. But historians do not. For us, there is always a person telling the history. History, therefore, is about who the teller is as much as it is about what they are telling. The problem history teachers face that historians do not is that they have to "cover" a lot of material in order to have it be considered a history course. Historians, on the other hand, know that much of the really great "un-covering" that can happen only occurs when you consider the source as much as the content.

Next, we are story-telling animals. Some anthropologists think that is one of the most significant characteristics that makes us human. One of my all time favorite essays is Robert Coles' "Stories and Theories" from his collection The Call of Stories. In this essay Coles recounts his days as an intern in a hospital and how he comes to learn the power of stories, as well as theories, to help us explore our most basic humanity. History is the stories being told about the events, not the events themselves.

2) History, therefore, occurs in the PRESENT not in the past; history is our "authoring" of the past.

Doing history literally creates the past, as much as records it. We cannot help but put our imprint on the stories we tell. Doing history operates kind of like the Heisenberg uncertainty principle where the act of measuring something puts limits on what you can know. As history teachers, however, we are often inclined toward the expository rather than the exploratory. But historians are more like artists with a lump of clay exploring what they can create from that mass than they are like record-keepers trying to figure out "what really happened" in the past. Historians assume subjectivity in their craft; we do not think that what we are creating is objective fact. Oftentimes, however, students are working on a very different mental model than that one.

The implications of this particular mental model are huge. History is now no longer passive; it is active. You don't "study" history as much as you "do" history. History is verb, not a noun. In a weird way, you "history" something. This changes the dynamic between you and the past. "Doing" history is always an act of empowerment because it is a creative act in which you can use the techniques from every other discipline to un-cover and shape the raw material. Some people have argued that this is why history is the "queen of the disciplines"--it is the only one defined solely by time and not by content. In short, you are now the author of your past as much as the product. And not only that, over time, you can, and will, change history. History, like experience, is not what happens to you, it is what you DO with what happens to you.

3) "The past isn't dead, it isn't even past." William Faulkner

How many times do you hear, "That was then, this is now."? As you can infer, to an historian this is nonsense. The present contains the past, you just have to un-cover it. The idea that we are not influenced by the past makes no sense. This is why, by the way, novelists like Faulkner and Toni Morrison and many others are fabulous historians. If you think about it in a reverse manner it makes sense as well. Who doesn't have a past? An amnesiac. Look at the problems that causes.

Now my friend Ken Jackson often says, "History is for losers." He uses this to explain why New York City has had such a disinterest in its past until quite recently. Cities that play on their "historical past"--say Charleston, Savannah, maybe even Boston--do so because they use it as a money generating draw to come to the city. They are cities that have "lost" in the present day economy, and therefore have to compensate by using the past.

I confess there are moments where I feel like I am teaching the most ahistorical group (adolescents) in the most ahistorical city (New York) in the most ahistorical country (USA) in the world. But then I see CITYtermers start to read the built environment of Harlem, the Dutch influence in lower Manhattan, the abundant ecological clues of Brooklyn, or the immigration patterns of Queens in order to see the intersection of the past and the present, and I start to realize that for individuals, if not for cities, being an historian opens up a whole new present, as well as a past.

What do you think are some of the other mental models that we hold that don't allow us to make history....or other disciplines...experience-based?

And, if you believe that these are the models that need to be exposed, then what are the implications for how we should teach people how to be historians? If we are going to be committed to teaching people to be "deep learners" and to being ones ourselves, we need to figure out how to incorporate experience-based principles into our our teaching and our learning. Sounds like a fun project we can do together, right?


  1. David, I think the tricky part about this new, active, model is largely assessment. What are the best performance tasks to practice being a historian, and how do you know when you have been successful? Is it telling a new, great story about something old? Designing something that responds to the past?

    I think history is boring for many students because if you asked them what a historian does, they could only respond that they read about the past, then write about the past. I suppose it is our challenge to find the pop stars/historians/artists/architects/novelists/etc. who succeed because they are also deft historians.

  2. Coming from the study of biology - and specifically that of animal behavior, which is closely linked to human psychology - there is a precept that all animals (including homo sapiens) act in their own self-interest at all times. It seems difficult, then, to then create an elaborate history around a person's actions, because it starts to look like they actually had the lofty goal in mind that we now mark down in our books as an "historical event."

    It would be a really great historical tool to look at history from the point of view of a psychologist, and try to understand the personal story arc of the individual in question. This may make those larger historical events seem like just a series of (un)fortunate events that all coalesced at the right time to create whatever it was that it was. After all, as we live our lives, do we ever have any clue what is coming next? Can we really take so much credit for the events in our lives? Therefore, how much can we actually attribute to any certain historical figures in the past?