Studying and Constructing History: A Historian’s Take

As a historian, I consider myself very privileged to be working alongside history educators and history teachers. This is a privilege that not many academic historians can enjoy since there are very few university departments that offer a combination of courses in academic history and history pedagogy such as those offered by HSSE. From my colleagues, I not only gained new insights into history education and classroom teaching, but I have also come to appreciate that there is a clear distinction between what I do as a historian – the locating and reading of primary documents and the very tedious process of reading, corroborating, cross-referencing and finally writing – and what history teachers do in the classroom, that is to teach history as a school subject.

As much as one might consider history to be a subject that seems to be the same at different educational levels – after all, isn’t history about dates and events and people long dead? – there exists a gap between the work that historians do and the histories they write (let’s call it academic history) and the history that is taught in the classroom (let’s call it school history). For one thing, school history appears to have a beginning and end, usually in tandem with the first and last pages of the textbook and the first and last lesson of the school year. It suggests a body of finite knowledge about certain countries, or wars, or historical epochs, that if one studies it thoroughly enough, one might be assured of a pass in the assessments that come with the subject.

In contrast, the historian does not live in such a neat and tidy world. To the historian, the body of knowledge is infinite and the research question one has in mind often has an uncanny knack of metamorphosing into many other questions and leads that always seem much more interesting than the work on hand. While school history tends to be presented in a largely linear fashion with students being taught to “read” sources for answers to assessment questions, the work of a historian is not as straightforward. The historian tends to work in circular fashion – reading documents, starting to write and then realizing more information or research is needed and then it’s back to the archives or library he / she goes. This is, perhaps, the very first distinction between studying history in school and writing history.

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An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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