Freethought and Class Consciousness

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power…


If the working class had always been as enlightened as any other class of the community, is it not certain that the institutions of society, framed and established under the influence of such enlightenment, would have been calculated to promote their interests at least, equally with the interests of any other class of the community?

They alone were the producers of wealth; they were always superior in numbers; what then could it be but
want of intelligence that disabled them from demanding the formation and establishment of institutions which would make them who were the only producers, the proprietors and enjoyers of at least as great a share of the proceeds of their own industry, as any others?

Here then is the root of the evil: those who controlled their destinies were more informed than they. Superior information gave them superior power; and having a direct interest in accumulating the products of other people’s labor, (themselves being exempt therefrom) and thus of subjecting the working classes to endless toil, they were induced and enabled by such degrees as each succeeding state of society would admit, to frame and establish institutions, the almost invariable result of which is to render poverty-stricken and degraded the condition of the producer, while they enrich and aggrandize the indolent consumer. Here then we discover the
main cause of the degradation that ever has, and ever will assail the workingmen, so long as they continue the lamentable subjects of it, and one which nothing can remove but the general diffusion of knowledge through the working class, and an unreserved dissemination of truth, particularly in relation to equal rights and moral and political economy.

Horace Seaver (1810-1889), Occasional Thoughts of Horace Seaver. From Fifty Years of Free Thinking. Selected from the Boston Investigator, 1888.

Teaching Kids History

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

The subtitle of this award-winning volume of essays, promises to chart the future of teaching the past. Wineburg’s main point, that the “historical thinking” and close, critical reading practiced by professional historians are very different from the ways students in other fields (and high school students, even in history classes) are taught to read and think. This is a valuable insight, which historians who write for the public (and grad students) would benefit from pondering. Wineburg’s essays, gathered from a decade of articles, conference papers and informal presentations, open a new field of study and outline a number of questions that he and others have begun trying to answer.

Wineburg begins by observing that standardized testing doesn’t provide an accurate picture of students’ historical knowledge, partly because of the testers’ focus on data and facts. He suggests that a wider exploration might explore the “cultural pores” through which students (and the general public) acquire historical understanding, “make meaning…[and] situate their own personal histories in the context of national and world history.” Wineburg places the debate over history at the center of the American culture wars, complete with Lynne Cheney at the head of the National Endowment of the Humanities, and candidate Bob Dole calling his opponents in the national standards debate “worse than external enemies” of America. Given the nastiness of the debate over what should and shouldn’t be taught, “some might wonder why history was ever considered part of the humanities…that are supposed to teach us to spurn sloganeering, tolerate complexity, and cherish nuance.” Wineburg’s claim is that history is mind-expanding and humanizing, but only if we learn to think like historians.

Historical thinking, Wineburg says, “goes against the grain of how we ordinarily think.” Wineburg observed high school students, and found that even those with well-developed reading skills “shaped the information [they] encountered so that the new conformed to the shape of the already known.” He compares the naïve high-schooler’s approach to Collingwood’s belief “that we can somehow ‘know Caesar’ because human ways of thought, in some deep and essential way, transcend time and space.”

Against this “classic historicist stance,” Wineburg argues with Carlo Ginzburg that the historian’s task is to “destroy our false sense of proximity to people of the past…The morte we discover about these people’s mental universes, the more we should be shocked by the cultural distance that separates us from them.” The Egyptians, Wineburg concludes, “drew differently because they
saw differently.”

This is familiar territory to academic historians, who delight in the tension between the two extremes of “classical” objectivity and “post-modern” subjectivity – and generally live somewhere in between. Wineburg, of course, is writing primarily for social studies teachers and educational administrators. The part that may be new and shocking to professional historians is how their nuanced, qualified descriptions of the past change as they enter the high school classroom. Textbooks, Wineburg says, “pivot on what Roland Barthes called the ‘referential illusion,’ the notion that the way things are told is simply the way things were.” Textbooks eliminate “metadiscourse…places in the text where the author intrudes to indicate positionality and stance.” They generally speak in the omniscient third person, suggesting that they’re presenting “just the facts, ma’am,” and that there’s one correct interpretation and it’s the one they’ve presented. Metadiscourse, Wineburg says, indicates an author’s “judgment, emphasis, and uncertainty.” Historians “rely heavily on ‘hedges’ to indicate indeterminacy, using such devices…to convey the uncertainty of historical knowledge.” Textbooks don’t.

This approach to teaching the past, Wineburg suggests, leaves students unaware that for actual historians, the past is substantially more mysterious and their understanding of it more tentative and contingent – and as a result much more interesting than the textbooks. Students are left with a “presentist” point of view, and come to see concepts like prejudice, tolerance, racism, fairness, and equity “as transcendent truths soaring above time and place,” rather than as “patterns of thought that take root in particular historical moments.” As a result of current methods, Wineburg says, students (and some teachers) don’t know what to make of figures like Abraham Lincoln, whose attitudes toward black people don’t fit those of the twenty-first century.

The two main elements of “historical thinking” for Wineburg seem to be subtext and context. General readers mine texts for data points, he says, while historians are aware of the text as both “a rhetorical artifact and…as a human artifact.” To the historian, “texts emerge as speech acts,” subject to “the same set of concepts we use to decipher human action.” Furthermore, historians are rarely the intended audience of the documents they study, so “as eavesdroppers on conversations between others, [they] must try to understand both the authors’ intentions and the audiences’ reactions” to the text. In contrast, students and their teachers too often looked for “straight information,” and “failed to see the text as a social instrument skillfully crafted to achieve a social end.”

Having laid out this argument, Wineburg presents a series of studies he’s performed over the years. He shows bright, articulate high school students failing to understand the context of primary documents, while historians examine the sources of statements as closely as the statements themselves. In one ironic passage, a student-teacher who majored in history as an undergraduate is less able to pull back from the text, than a former physics major (suggesting perhaps a difference in the way these people learned about paradigms and the contingency of knowledge?). Finally, in a concluding essay, Wineburg makes some interesting points about lived and learned memory, and observes wryly that “family” experience of history has largely devolved into jumping onto the couch together and popping in a Spielberg video.

Historical Thinking, like most field-establishing texts, opens more doors than it closes. Clearly there’s a lot left to do, if the goal is to teach secondary educators and high school students how to think more like historians. Wineburg has outlined the problem, and has made a convincing case that “historical thinking” could lead to greater “intellectual charity.” How to implement solutions, and how critical thinking in history is different from and superior to critical thinking in other fields, are questions that still need to be explored. The promise of “charting the future of teaching the past” is not fulfilled in this volume – but maybe we now have some ideas about where to look.