I got this from John Fea’s book Was America Founded as a Christian Nation. It applies to what I am doing in my own historical research. After listening to him I started changing my approach to my research. of course this was also affected by Elizabeth Shown Mills, Evidence Explained: Citing History Sources from Artifacts to Cyberspace. Because of Mills I had already started doing genealogy completely differently than other genealogists I know. I had started to think like a lawyer in terms of legal proof. But I also started to think like a scientist by demanding an explanation for why events took place. What were the underlying causes of events? This soon became more fascinating than the facts of genealogy. I find myself wanting to write a history book about the lives and migration paths of my ancestors.
Then I picked up Fea’s book and this reinforced my realization that I was woefully underprepared to understand my own past! I had not taken enough history courses in college to know how historians do anything. Well, Fea helps with that a bit. Let me share some of his ideas, below.
Fea is quoting Historians Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke. He says there are 5 C’s of Histororical Thinking.
Historians must see change over time. While some things stay the same over the course of
generations, many things change. The historian’s task is to chronicle these changes. As historian
John Tosh puts it, “There may be a gulf between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ but that gulf is actually
composed of processes of growth, decay and change which it is the business of the historian to
Historians must interpret the past in context. They examine the documents of the past in
light of the time and the place in which they were written. Words ripped from their cultural and
chronological context provide useful material for the compilers of quotation books, but they are
useless to the historian. The words of the founders, for example, must always be interpreted from
the perspective of the eighteenth-century world in which they were uttered or written. There is a
wide chasm that separates the past from the present. Context helps us to realize that more often
than not people in the past do not think and behave the same way that we do.
Historians are always interested in causality. I remember a few years ago when the talk
radio host Rush Limbaugh announced that “history is real simple. You know what history is? It’s
what happened. Now if you want to get into why what happened, that’s probably valid too, but
why what happened shouldn’t have much of anything to do with what happened.”8 Limbaugh
could not have been more wrong about what historians do. They are not only interested in facts,
but always ask why a particular event in the past happened the way it did.
Historians are concerned with contingency. This is the notion that “every historical outcome
depends upon a number of prior conditions.”9 Contingency celebrates the ability of humans to
shape their own destiny. Every historical moment is contingent upon another historical moment,
which in turn is contingent upon yet another moment. Historians are thus concerned about the
big picture—how events are influenced by other events.
5. COMPLEX (History is complex.)
Finally, historians realize that the past is complex. It often resists our efforts to simplify it or
to cut it up into easily digestible pieces. Most students of history are exposed to the past through
textbooks that offer rather straightforward narratives of how a particular era unfolded. While
often necessary for overviews and syntheses of the past, textbooks often fail to reveal that the
past can be messy, complicated, and not easily summarized in a neatly constructed paragraph or
two. Once again, the debate over whether America is a Christian nation is instructive here. On
one hand, the opponents of Christian America draw the conclusion that just because the
Constitution does not mention God then it must hold true that the framers did not believe that
religion was important to the success of the Republic. On the other hand, defenders of Christian
America conclude that if the founders were people of Christian faith, then they must have set out
to establish a uniquely Christian nation. Logicians call these assertions “non sequiturs.”
Historians would argue that those who draw such conclusions lack an appreciation for the complexity of the past.
OK, that leads to Fea’s CONSTRUCTION
The task of historians is to use these five Cs to reconstruct the past and make their findings
available to the public. Historians make the dead live. They bring the past to an audience in the
present. If we think about the vocation of the historian in this way, then we must distinguish
between “history” and “the past.” The past is the past—a record of events that occurred in
bygone eras. But history is a discipline—the art of reconstructing the past.
References provided by John Fea:
1). Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?” AHA Perspectives 45: 1 (January
2007). Accessed at http://www.historians.org/Perspectives/issues/2007/0701/0701tea2.cfm.
2) John Tosh, The Pursuit of History, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 2006),
3) Gary Nash, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past (New York: Vintage, 2000).
4) Andrews and Burke, “What Does It Mean to Think Historically?”
OK, that’s enough for now. I have to actually apply these 5 or 6 “C’s”, and re-visit the topic later after some experiences in tracing my family’s past.