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Thinking like a historian

KA's historian Kim Kutz Elliott discusses some of the basic skills for thinking like a historian.

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  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user ∫∫ Greg Boyle  dG dB
    We all have a different lens through which we view the world. How do historians make sure that they do not inject their own biases into their work?
    (236 votes)
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    • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Kim Kutz Elliott
      This is a great question. I think it's good for everyone doing research to understand that we live inside our own culture, in time and place as well as our personal beliefs. Just like people in the 15th century could only think like 15th century people, we can only think like 21st century people, which will probably seem incredibly backward to 24th century people. Add class, race, gender, religion, and nationality into that mix and it's clear that everyone is coming to a subject with their own worldview. I'll do a video on this soon, but the question is not WHETHER someone is biased, it's HOW -- everyone and every source is biased. That's something historians have to take into account when they read evidence, and something they have to take into account with themselves. The best you can do is gather as many sources as possible and try to imagine as many different worldviews as you can.
      (223 votes)
  • aqualine sapling style avatar for user Coker Sheila
    How many People can be on a slave ship and how many people get thrown over board (back when there was Slavery) a day?
    (23 votes)
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    • leafers tree style avatar for user Incygnius
      Well from what I heard, some boats could hold up to 600 people. As for the death rate, I believe that either 25% of the people survived or it could be the opposite.
      (I'm just going off my memory)
      (Yes I know this is ridiculously late, but you know, I'm doing it for fun)
      (4 votes)
  • leaf green style avatar for user Randy Purdy
    Considering the decreased cost of information through more wide-spread use of technology, do you think the tasks of a historian become more difficult? Specifically, the rise of misinformation on social media, conventional media, and even in our classrooms causes me to think using an objective lens, especially as a novice, is more important than ever before.
    (23 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user Max
    At Kim calls it a beaker but it is a test tube right?
    (10 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user hannahpineapple
    Why would we focus on the past instead of the present/ what is happening right now?
    (8 votes)
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    • piceratops sapling style avatar for user Joel Greenfield
      In my view, learning from the past is the key to understanding the present. Over time, people have documented history, and historians are able to analyze the conditions during a certain time period to come up with an argument explaining why a historical event happened. And surprisingly (to me, at least), much of history can serve as lessons for today.
      (20 votes)
  • blobby green style avatar for user Jasiyah Rice
    Wouldn't it be harder if a historian of a different religion, or race, etc. have a hard time keeping their own bias out of their "story"( history)?
    (9 votes)
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  • blobby green style avatar for user Minh Thieu Nguyen
    Experiments are the tools in science to prove a theory. Should history considered science when we actually do not have any methods of replicating the "conditions" in the past as well as knowing the alternate results because it is already done and unchangeable?
    (5 votes)
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  • duskpin tree style avatar for user Josie Bigger
    would thinking like a historian help you in everyday life?
    (3 votes)
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    • leaf orange style avatar for user Benny C
      Gosh yes! Historians must think critically (which is valuable for anyone). They have to analyse things from a neutral perspective (biases aren't usually a good thing). They learn to check sources and accuracy (look at what's happening with the media nowadays). They are excellent at persuasion and convincing, and proving their points with evidence (absolutely a good skill to have).
      (5 votes)
  • marcimus purple style avatar for user Gutierrez, Vanessa
    How does thinking like a historian actually help us in history?
    (2 votes)
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  • blobby purple style avatar for user Paola
    How do the historians make sure there logic makes sense?
    (3 votes)
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    • aqualine tree style avatar for user David Alexander
      "Making sense" is a very subjective thing, but, in general, a "professional" historian is part of a community of historians stretching far into the past. When she, or her colleaguse compares her logic to others who are currently working or in the past, whether something "makes sense" becomes apparent. The key is to work within a community of others who have like interests. It's when we invent histories based on fantasies of our own that we cease to make sense.
      (7 votes)

Video transcript

- [Voiceover] I think one of the most underrated skills for learning history is learning how to think like a historian. And what do I mean by "thinking like a historian"? Does that mean that you have to go out and buy a tweed jacket with some elbow patches and maybe grow a long, white beard and sit around all day pondering whether the Civil War was caused by slavery or states' rights? No, but you can try that if you want. But I would say thinking like a historian is a little bit like being a combination between a storyteller and a scientist . . . you're gonna see me draw a really, really bad beaker here there we go . . . some little fumes coming off of that. and a lawyer, maybe I'll put a gavel here. It's a gavel, not a croquet mallet or a hammer. So first let's start with the storytelling aspect. I think one of the most important things that we can learn from telling this story of history is that in a good story nothing just happens. Imagine a story where everything just happened. The story would be: the wind blows, the earth turns, right? No one is making those things happen and that's why it's kind of a boring story because it doesn't show cause and effect. And that cause and effect is really the backbone of history, right? And you would be surprised how often people can fall into the trap of telling history, this incredible story about what people have done in the past that has led to the society we have today as if it were kind of a laundry list of events that just followed one after another without any possibility of things being different. People will say, "and then World War II happened" or "and then the United States was born," right? Those statements are in passive voice because they don't talk about the people who make these things happen. And really, short of a natural disaster, pretty much everything happens in history because people made it happen. So when you think like a historian, you kind of think the same way that a novelist might think. OK, what is this character's motive? What are they going to do to make their wish come true? What are the influences that lead a person to make certain choices? And just like people make choices, nations make choices, right? World War I didn't just happen and just as people make choices, actions have consequences. You wouldn't write a story where a thief stole 100 million dollars and the police didn't even try to come after her. Neither can you write a story about history without talking about the effects that actions have on people. So that's the storytelling aspect of thinking like a historian. Let's talk about the scientific aspect. We often think of history as something that's pretty much done, right? It's a series of events that happened in the past and now we just have to memorize what happened so we can learn from it and maybe have a good idea about what to do in the future. But really there is only so much we can actually know about what happened in the past. And so historians always have to do a kind of research to understand what happened and get a better idea of what people were feeling. So just like scientists have theories, when historians think about the past, they're really thinking about theories as well. They're saying, "ok, I have a theory about "what caused the evolution of jazz in the 1920s." Why did jazz become a major popular form of music in the 1920s? Well, I'm gonna theorize it was because people were reacting to the horror of World War I which made so many people interested in kind of, staccato notes and discordant sounds. Alright, so that's a theory. Well, how do you go about proving a theory? And the answer is you do research and you consult evidence, right? And the way that you do that in history is usually by doing a lot of reading, right? You might say, alright well, let me take the letters of some jazz musicians from this time period and see what they write about. Maybe they write all about how they experienced battle in World War I and they were trying to reflect that in their music. Or maybe they write that World War I had nothing to do with their interest in music. Actually, they wanted to simulate the sounds of flight because they were so interested in modern forms of transportation. So our understanding of what happened in the past is always just a theory. I mean we have a pretty good idea of what was going on most of the time, but new information comes to light all the time, right? I mean people are always cleaning out their grandma's attic and finding some new documents and as the preponderance of the evidence shifts and changes so might our understanding of the past. The last aspect of thinking like a historian I want to talk about is this kind of lawyerly aspect. And what I mean by this is that historians are always making an argument. Just like a lawyer gets up in a court room and says, "Here's my idea, now let me support it "with the evidence from witnesses, from experts, "from objects we might have found at a crime scene." A historian is saying, "believe my theory. "Believe my evidence." And I think the analogy of law is really powerful here because you could see the same pieces of evidence used to support two different arguments. So for example, say there's, maybe . . . a sock that was found at the scene of a crime right, and here's our sock . . . I'm not a beautiful artist. But, maybe the prosecution tries to argue . . . that the accused must have committed this crime because the sock is his size. Right, the sock shows he did it. Whereas the defense might say, "My client never wears socks, "he always wears sandals." So it's clear that the sock shows that he couldn't possibly have been the one to do this crime. So that's how we end up with so many different interpretations of the same event. The task of the historian is to gather evidence and to present an argument that they think will best convince the public of their interpretation. And so these interpretations do change over time. So in later videos we'll get into the nuts and bolts of how you tell these stories and make these arguments. But for now, I just kind of want you to see that thinking like a historian is not something that only historians can do. It's actually a really useful skill for lots of aspects of your life. We tell stories, search for evidence, and make arguments in our lives all the time about things that we interact with every day like our favorite bands, our favorite foods, our political views, right? We base those on our own experiences, consequences in our lives and evidence that we see around us. And we can do the same thing for the past. It's not such a foreign country. What we have are the remnants of that past and the ability to interpret them.