What is historical thinking?

I have been reading and rereading this wonderful article by Sam Wineburg of Stanford University and Richard Paxton titled 'Expertise and the teaching of history'. (Click here for a website titled historicalthinkingmatters.org maintained by Prof Wineberg). They argue, rightly, that the best way for engendering historical thinking is giving first hand, children different primary sources related to a common event or episode. Since each source carries with it biases, motives and problems, children need to be helped to sift through them and identify the problems and finally arrive at a more "objective" understanding of the past or an event. I have no disputes here. One needs to be sensitized to the fact that knowledge about the past comes from a careful and systematic study of primary sources.
Very often our perception and views of the past are shaped by hearsay and works of poor historical scholarship which refuse to bring upon the sources the kind of questioning and discernment that one needs to for an "objective" understanding of the past. But does historical thinking emerge or refer to this ability to skillfully deal with primary sources in a rigorous and scientific, corroborative fashion? Cannot we look at historical thinking as something which can also emerge from looking at secondary reading, monographs, articles, essays, criticism which satisfies certain criterias? (what those criteria could be i will elaborate later)
As things stand in India, access to primary sources is not easy. Secondly few teachers (including myself) have the kind of linguistic ability that equips one to interpret these primary sources particularly those written in old languages and scripts pertaining to ancient and medieval period. Thirdly and importantly I also wonder if historical thinking is something that one can ascribe to that approach alone where one deals with primary sources alone. Wineburg, of course goes further and also talks about the need for a perspective that one needs to generate from these sources and also perspectives that help one to look at these sources in more than empirical way.

One reconstructs the past basically on the basis of primary literary sources along with archaeological sources but when we (rather I) talk of historical thinking, it is not just in terms of a methodology to examine, deal and interpret with the sources connected to a period or event but more a recognition that events transpire more in temporal terms. In other words when an event or even a process that shapes up, it does so in a social, economic, political and cultural context. And these socio-economic, political, cultural factors impinging on an event have to be studied, recognized and understood as materializing or actualizing in time or over a period of time. This according to me is historical thinking which can be nurtured and needs to be nurtured for the kids and adults as well, for historical thinking is actually an important attribute of citizenship.

Therefore in the first place to bring oneself to raise those questions one needs to look at existing interpretations which examine those events and its sources in more comprehensive ways and help establish the not so evident links that exist between the political, social, economic and cultural domains. In other words one can say that familiarity with secondary sources (monographs and research articles) using frameworks that help explore the sources and events beyond simple empiricism itself helps to nurture historical thinking. And there are innumerable secondary works on various topics whose outline and main ideas teachers can and need to be familiar with so that they can put it across to students to help them realize that- i. an event can be looked at in so many ways, ii. and that events happen in certain concrete contexts. To me historical thinking is an understanding that past or present societal events, changes or even individual actions happen not in simplistic causal fashion but in more complex ways and in more temporal terms.

Historical thinking is not something which can be ascribed just to one's ability to employ certain methods in dealing with primary sources but historical thinking would also mean looking at contemporary issues and events in a diachronic or temporal perspective. This is the ability to identify certain broad contours, features and trends which shape the more manifest political, social and cultural events that transpire across space and time. And this ability need not just be arrived only when confronted with primary sources. On the other hand making use of existing studies that have used various primary sources and have factored in earlier interpretations as well, and putting it before students highlighting the ways the sources pertaining to a particular period or an event have been used would be of greater help in engendering historical thinking. Historical thinking thus is also the ability to ask questions which helps one to arrive at broad generalizations that help to understand society better across space and time. It is a different matter that we do not have books appropriately written for children (and even teachers) which reflect such intense scholarship and use of primary sources.

For example if one is looking into the conflict between Mughals and Marathas, in my opinion it is more important for the students to understand land relations, the social structure (caste system), methods of warfare, religious beliefs of the people etc to establish the fact that it was more a conflict between two competing classes, than just look at it as a Hindu v/s Muslim conflict. One is not trying to minimize the influence of religion and that religion did not play a role in one's identity but more to establish the idea that religion itself was enmeshed in social, economic and political changes of the times. And the thing is there is a rich historiography dealing with this conflict by historians/scholars like Andre Wink, Irfan Habib, Jadunath Sarkar, Sardesai etc to name a only a few, following whose works one can arrive at a more complex and rich but by no means a closed and sealed understanding of this chapter in late medieval Indian history. Historical thinking then is about recognizing the latter and since we have great number of studies (secondary sources) exploring that particular aspect of Mughal history, historical thinking is not incumbent on one's ability to sift through various sources from that period. Historical thinking can also be generated by helping children become familiar with different perspective offered by different studies which extends the canvas on which events take place.

Such an ability or skill to look at events then becomes, to repeat, an important attribute of citizenship in the same way scientific thinking and temperament is also used as a marker of citizenship and maybe even modernity.

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