History's Habits of the Mind

The perspectives and modes of thoughtful judgment derived from the study of history are many, and they ought to be its principal aim. Courses in history, geography, and government should be designed to take students well beyond formal skills of critical thinking, to help them through their own learning to:

  1. understand the significance of the past to their own lives, both private and public, and to their society.
  2. distinguish between the important and the inconsequential, to develop the "discriminating memory" needed for a discerning judgment in public and personal life.
  3. perceive past events and issues as they were experienced by people at the time, to develop historical empathy as opposed to present-mindedness.
  4. acquire at one and the same time a comprehension of diverse cultures and of shared humanity.
  5. understand how things happen and how things change, how human intentions matter, but also how their consequences are shaped by the means of carrying them out, in a tangle of purpose and process.
  6. comprehend the interplay of change and continuity, and avoid assuming that either is somehow more natural, or more to be expected, than the other.
  7. prepare to live with uncertainties and exasperating, even perilous, unfinished business, realizing that not all problems have solutions.
  8. grasp the complexity of historical causation, respect particularity, and avoid excessively abstract generalizations.
  9. appreciate the often tentative nature of judgments about the past, and thereby avoid the temptation to seize upon particular "lessons" or history as cures for present ills.
  10. recognize the importance of individuals who have made a difference in history, and the significance of personal character for both good and ill.
  11. appreciate the force of the nonrational, the irrational, the accidental, in history and human affairs.
  12. understand the relationship between geography and history as a matrix of time and place, and as context for events.
  13. read widely and critically in order to recognize the difference between fact and conjecture, between evidence and assertion, and thereby to frame useful questions.

Habits of Mind taken from:

Bradley Commission on History in Schools.  Building a History Curriculum: Guidelines for Teaching History in Schools. Westlake, OH: National Council for History Education, 1995. p. 9.

National Council for History Education, Inc.

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Last updated on February 26, 2003

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