Core Decorum: historical thinking

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Illustration courtesy of Cecilia Lang

Through University of Dallas’ core history classes, we students are challenged to think like historians, and this challenge develops our intellect and ability to discuss. With four history classes in the core, every UD student is familiar with the basics of dissecting a historical document and analyzing it. But what does this fundamentally look like, and how and what do we learn from it?

Approaching a document historically is a difficult task. You must situate the work within its historical context so that you may have a basic grasp of the events and circumstances of the time that your particular text was written. 

Not only should you understand the writer’s general context, you must have basic working knowledge of the author to illuminate the inherent bias of an author’s position.

When you open a historical text, what was the author’s perspective? Was he or she an elite of his or her society? Was he or she a political minority? A revolutionist? A slave? These questions shed light on the inherent bias of an author’s perspective.

Further, when you answer these questions, you acknowledge the author’s contemporaries, recognizing that his/hers was not the only relevant viewpoint of that time. For example, due to Henry Adams’ elite social position and his relation to two American presidents, his perspective on American society is a very particular one, and may not have been the prevailing viewpoint of the time. 

With an understanding of the writer’s context, you must learn to separate your own context from your engagement with the text. For example, The Education of Henry Adams was written in the early 20th century before both World Wars, the Great Depression, and the advent of the internet. Even though we are fully aware of the time span, it’s important to actively acknowledge the time period of a written work. 

Historical thinking is more comprehensive than what I have laid out above, but historical context and author context are two important components of this type of thinking. In the core history classes at UD, we have all experienced this type of thinking. 

So why is it important to our everyday lives and thoughts?

When you are able to put an author and a text within it’s appropriate context, you learn how to engage with ideas without interjecting your own bias into them. 

This skill is not limited to history. This way of thinking is how we should approach discussions with people who do not share our beliefs and opinions. Making an effort to situate a person within their own context during a conversation allows for a more fruitful discussion. 

We must remember that everyone has their own context. Blindly insisting on the validity of your own opinion is comparable to expecting The Education of Henry Adams to have the same perspective as your 21st century self. 

When discussing opinions, you should always assume that the other person knows something that you do not. You have to listen. 

In this way, we can have productive dialogues about sensitive political, emotional, or societal topics without being offensive or rude. Apply your historical thinking skills and give people the benefit of the doubt. If we can give that courtesy to Henry Adams, Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Thucydides, why don’t we give it to each other? 

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