Thinking About Historical Thinking

This week’s materials on the way people engage with history were very enlightening. At this point in my life, I’d like to think that I have a solid grasp on the most fundamental tools in a historian’s toolbox: questioning past human choices, trying to understand these choices in the context that they originated in, and critically engaging with sources. However, the prevalence with which members of the American public were unable to engage with basic historical concepts left me so distressed that I was left wondering about the competency of my own historical thinking skills! This topic gets especially complicated when seen from the perspective of public history. Putting this all together, I had a few questions that I hope to discuss with others as we move forward in this course:

  • If audiences come to a public history project without basic historical thinking strategies, is it the history project’s responsibility to take this into account? Or is it the users’ responsibility to learn those strategies elsewhere if they are unable to properly engage with the project?
  • Should the creators of a public history project aim to develop and grow the historical thinking strategies of the project’s users in addition to the hyper-specific goal of educating the users on the topic at hand?
    • If the answer to this question is yes: what’s the dynamic between these two goals? Are they in opposition? Which one takes precedence?

I think in an ideal world (perhaps this is just my ideal world), users would come to a public history project — museum, monument, digital public history experience — with basic concepts on reading, evaluation, and critical thinking about history already developed. This kind of wish seems especially far-fetched when you consider how many consumers of history projects are K-12 students. For background, the historical topics that I’ve been working on over the past year deal with graphic racialized violence — not exactly the kind of material that would be suitable for a young and beginner history student. With this in mind, I don’t think it’s that unreasonable for me to hope and expect that the users who are engaging with my digital history projects about lynching have some basic historical thinking strategies. Whether or not they do is a different matter.

Regardless, it’s in everyone’s best interest if creators of history projects take on the mantle of teaching users how to engage with historical content. If you write a book in French, but your target audience is not fluent in the language, all of your hard work is for naught; in order to engage users, you must first teach them the language. Maybe they took French in high school and college, but received substandard instruction. The fact that users are unprepared to interact with your project is not your fault, but it is your problem.

Is it possible that the target audience for your project is equipped with the basic strategies necessary to engage with historical concepts? The only way to know is through audience research. If audience research shows that most potential usersĀ do have the necessary tools — great! No need to spend precious project resources teaching people something they already know. For this reason, it’s vital that specific audience groups for projects are determined at the earliest stages and that thorough research is conducted on potential users. Evaluation of historical thinking strategies should be a central component of initial audience research and the project should be modified according to these findings.

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