No. 24, October 1992



A Way of Thinking

It was G.J. Renier who coined the phrase: History is not a subject amongst other subjects. It is a way of thinking.

In the discussion on the place and role of History in the school curriculum a lot of emphasis is quite rightfully placed on the development of a historical consciousness and sensitivity. An awareness of the power and influence of History in shaping the human world, both in its individual and its collective nature, does not imply a historicist belief in an inevitable historical determinism. An historical consciousness is rather the hallmark of a highly developed and cultured mind and of a responsible citizen.

The historical way of thinking is part and parcel of an historical consciousness. But as far as the teaching of History is concerned it is a very special and specialised aspect. Developing an historical way of thinking requires a good understanding of what it means and a particular empathy with the child at the different levels of his/her psychological and intellectual development.

Man is supposed to be a thinking animal. It is true, however, that he often acts before he thinks. He acts instinctively because he is often driven by internal stimuli like hunger, thirst or the desire for rest. Man is also a creature of habit. His actions are conditioned by responses to a sensation and these function independently of intervention from the brain. Cultured man is however supposed to be in control of his instincts and to guide his habits by rational thinking.

Lets quote Renier: "Men, or their ancestors, have learned long since that there were occasions when it paid them to delay action and to watch. The discovery of the use of reflection and contemplation must have been an important moment in their evolution. They know, now, that they must sometimes 'stop to think'. When trouble arises they try to reconstruct the conditions which occasioned it. When they are faced with the need for taking a difficult or important action, they first recall experiences previously undergone in circumstances that show some resemblance with those of the present situation; then they make sure in their minds that these resemblances are genuine and they also note the differences between the present situation and their past experience. Having done this, having exercised their thought, they allow their action to be guided by the resulting knowledge. We see that an awareness of our past experiences is an essential part of the thinking process. Without it we are unable to construct ideas about the consequences of our actions."

The collective and individual memory is an indispensable part of this thought process. "For every human being the memory of his individual experiences is a matter of supreme importance. To it he owes his sense of identity and possibly his consciousness, without it he can take no important decision, he cannot improve his condition, he cannot survive." What is true for the individual, is as true for the collectivity.

What does it mean to develop a historical way of thinking? Is it merely the practicing of a number of listed skills that teachers are supposed to cultivate in their pupils?

It is much more than the presently popular fashion of teaching skills. Skills are only one way of stimulating an historical way of thinking.

The main components of this particular process of thought could be summarised as follows:

  • The deliberate and purposeful training an and sharpening of the memory as a trustworthy and accurate store of knowledge and information and as a provider of guidelines and analogies that could serve man's needs.

  • The urge to reconstruct as complete and as unbiased an understanding of events and elements as is humanly possible.

  • A desire to consider all possible sides or angles to an issue.

  • A need to judge events based on an original and unfiltered confrontation with the real facts and issues involved and to avoid phantoms and fantasies.

  • An ability to subject events and issues to a relentless questioning that will systematically lead you deeper into an understanding of its real meaning and implications.

  • An awareness of the delicate task of putting the parts together to ensure that a meaningful and accurate synthesis is established.

  • The responsibility to evaluate the reconstruction not with the view to pass judgement or sentence but to provide a legitimate perspective that would ensure a fair and unbiased interpretation.

It is the task of the maths teacher to develop the abilities of his pupils to handle figures, statistics and formulas. The language teacher must build their ability to communicate and to appreciate good literature. The history teacher must lay the foundations for a very particular and most essential way of thinking.

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