Must Read Book

Wineburg, Samuel S., Historical Thinking & Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (2001).

I am somewhat biased here since I encouraged Wineburg to collect these essays together into a book. My motive was the realization that Wineburg’s work on historical learning and teaching was well known to people in education and cognitive psychology, but not to historians. These essays constitute the most important body of work on historical thinking, learning, and teaching that we have. Whereas the standard move in research on history learning is to count how many students can answer a multiple choice question about the tariff of abominations, Wineburg stands out for his creative and diverse methods: asking fifth and eight graders to illustrate textbook passages on pilgrims and hippies; having scholars think aloud as they analyze documents; observing hundreds of hours of history classrooms; showing provocative historical photographs to parents and children. Wineburg mines his wonderful material from this research with extraordinary insight and sympathy and an uncanny ability to zero in on the most revealing pieces of evidence. Almost every essay in the book has a memorable moment where Wineburg offers a stunning insight into his evidence. For example, see his great point about the teacher in a Christian school who teaches in a room filled with Biblical posters but avoids any judgments when teaching high school history—offering as Wineburg shows, the gospel according to Educational Testing Service Or, read his evocation of the moral dilemmas facing Mr. Stinson when his students want to justify the My Lai massacre or his description of the student with shoulder-length hair and a "Kiss" denim jacket offering a passionate defense of the loyalist position in the American Revolution. Most people would not think of scholarly work in educational psychology as fun to read, but Wineburg’s work is. His essays are lively, wise, humane, and funny. Some like the article describing the teaching of Elizabeth Jensen and John Price can only be described as inspiring—surely not a word often used for scholarly, social science articles.

Recommended by Roy Rosenzweig, George Mason University

Roy Rosenzweig is College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Professor of History and director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author, co-author, and co-editor of a number of books, including The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.