Why Study History? - Part 3

Published on October 26, 2020

Fostering Civic Reason

Alan Sears, University of New Brunswick

This blog series addresses the question, why is the study of history important? In the first installment, I argued that this question is usually addressed by articulating how historical study establishes a foundation of knowledge and skills necessary for a range of productive and satisfying careers. While important, this seriously undervalues the humanizing and civic purposes of history education. In the second blog, I made the case that history education is an effective way to foster the complex understandings of the nature of truth and evidence necessary for productive civic engagement. This post builds on the second by exploring specific aspects of human reasoning that mitigate against thoughtful engagement about important issues. I argue history education can address this by fostering what I call civic reasoning. 

In the previous post I pointed out that, for historians, knowledge or truth emerge from close attention to and faithful analysis of evidence combined with the presentation and discussion of findings in public fora of various sorts.  At one level it seems obvious to say that human knowledge emerges from these kinds of rational processes, but a plethora of recent work in cognitive science indicates that humans do not naturally attend to either evidence or logical argument.[1] (https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/27/why-facts-dont-change-our-minds) Space does not permit a comprehensive review of that work, but a summary indicates that when it comes to reasoning we are lazy (we tend to over simplify and make quick judgements), biased (our thinking is constrained by our cognitive frames and we resist changing our minds), hubristic (we think we know much more than we do), and partisan (we fit our thinking to what we think will please others close to us). All of these factors mitigate against detailed, thoughtful, and honest engagement with evidence and argument and often lead to “very smart people [taking] positions that are not remotely based on evidence.”[2] These evolved characteristics of our reasoning set up a set of dichotomies that make democratic life challenging (see Table 1).

Table 1: The Dichotomies of Reason
Inside 26 October
In his book Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones (https://gooselane.com/products/too-dumb-for-democracy), Canadian political scientist David Moscrop draws on similar work in cognitive science to argue that human beings are not naturally suited to democratic reasoning. “Our cognitive revolution,” he writes, “has not been able to keep up with our social, political, cultural, and technological evolution.”[3]  Good history education can address all of the dichotomies of reason outlined above in at least two ways: it can provide historical examples to illustrate each of the aspects of natural and civic reasoning and explore the consequences of those in human affairs; and it immerses students in processes designed explicitly to counter the natural tendencies to simplicity, bias, arrogance, and partisanship in order to foster the more complex orientations of civic reasoning.

In their book, The Enigma of Reason (https://www.hup.harvard.edu/catalog.php?isbn=9780674237827), for example, Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber, provide several historical examples of what they call “my side bias”[4] shaping important public issues. One of those is the work of Alphonse Bertillon, “one of the most respected policemen and forensic scientists in the world,” [5] who was commissioned by the French government to investigate the Dreyfus case at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth century. Despite his training and experience, Mercier and Sperber argue that Bertillion’s pre-existing cognitive frame led him to manipulate evidence in order to convict Dreyfus. Interestingly, the emergence of compelling new evidence did not cause him to alter his perspective but the opposite; he adjusted it to fit his predetermined agenda. For Mercier and Sperber, a key way to disrupt my side bias is through argumentation. They write, “Reasoning thrives in the back-and-forth of conversation, when people can exchange arguments and counterarguments.”[6] This case provides one example of how the human tendency to biased reasoning, even among well-educated and experienced professionals, operates in human affairs. It also supports an approach to history teaching that engages students in argumentation about the nature of evidence and the conclusions drawn from it as one way to foster better reasoning. 

History teaching can also engage students in wrestling with complex questions and issues.  Too often history class is focused on what Howard Gardner (https://www.routledge.com/The-Development-and-Education-of-the-Mind-The-Selected-Works-of-Howard/Gardner/p/book/9780415367288) calls the “correct answer compromise” whereby an instructor passes on fixed bodies of information and students are expected to repeat those back on tests and assignments. This is often in the service of “coverage” which Gardner calls “the greatest enemy of understanding.”[7] Gardner advocates engaging students with material from multiple perspectives “in ways that are initially congenial to them but that ultimately challenge them.”[8]

Inviting students to engage with a range of primary and secondary sources to address important historical questions is one way to do exactly as Gardner suggests. Students often initially find primary sources interesting and fun, but if they are involved in addressing important questions it will not be long before they recognize the sources are often incomplete, sometimes contradictory, and regularly quite obscure. They will have to engage in locating sources, interpretation, analysis, contextualizing, developing initial conclusions, presenting ideas, facing scrutiny, and rethinking premises. These are all fairly typical processes in historical research, and consistent with civic reasoning described above.

Reflecting on his long career as a history educator, Ken Osborne (https://www.utpjournals.press/doi/abs/10.3138/chr.93.1.108) made the point that a turning point for him came in university when he was asked to conduct his own investigation of an historical question using primary sources. That exercise fundamentally changed his own views about the nature of history, historical truth, and historical method. He went on to argue, “There is a case to be made for requiring anyone who plans to teach history to do some original work of this kind, no matter how limited in scope. There is no better way to learn what history entails as a form of disciplined inquiry.”[9] I think Osborne is too limited in his recommendation. It is not only prospective history teachers who need to experience with the kind of disciplined inquiry offered by history, but all citizens. 

Historian Jonathan Zimmerman and philosopher Emily Robertson (https://press.uchicago.edu/ucp/books/book/chicago/C/bo25956793.html) make the point that working with evidence and argument can foster enhanced civic deliberation.[10] They, and many others, provide detailed ideas for how considering contested questions, wrestling with evidence, and learning about the nature of expertise can enhance students’ abilities to engage in productive civic discourse grounded in complex understandings of the partial, shifting and contingent nature of knowledge. History teaching at all levels should engage students in these processes in order to foster the “unnatural act” of civic reasoning.[11]

[1] See, for example, Bethany Albertson and Shana Kushner Gadarian, Anxious Politics: Democratic Citizenship in a Threatening World (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015). Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone (New York: Riverhead Books, 2017). Hugo Mercier and Dad Sperber, The Enigma of Reason (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2017). Howard Gardner, The Development and Education of the Mind: The Selected Works of Howard Gardner, World Library of Educationalists Series (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).
[2] Sara E. Gorman and Jack M. Gorman, Denying to the Grave: Why We Ignore the Facts That Will Save Us (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017), 4.
[3] David Moscrop, Too Dumb for Democracy? Why We Make Bad Political Decisions and How We Can Make Better Ones (Fredericton, NB: Goose Lane Editions, 2019), 46.
[4] Mercier and Sperber, The Enigma, 292.
[5] Mercier and Sperber, 236.
[6] Mercier and Sperber, 270.
[7] Gardner, The Development, 148.
[8] Gardner, 148.
[9] Ken Osborne, “A History Teacher Looks Back,” The Canadian Historical Review 93, no. 1 (2012): 108–37, 120.
[10] Jonathan Zimmerman and Emily Robertson, The Case for Contention: Teaching Controversial Issues in American Schools (Chicago & London: University of Chicago Press, 2017).
[11] Sam Wineburg describes historical thinking as an unnatural act, in other words a set of learned processes in which humans do not normally engage. I am borrowing that phrase from him and using it in the same sense here. Samuel S. Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001).



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