Thinking Sensibly about Unicorns

horse chest piece on chess board

Nearly everyone agrees that history is necessary subject in school. We all agree that it is helpful to know history. But the truth is that we do not always agree on what it means to “know history.” Maybe a better way to say it is that we do not always agree on what it means to think historically. Books, books, and more books have been written on this subject. I want to mention just one piece of this puzzle, and also unicorns.

One famous article by Thomas Andrews and Flannery Burke distill historical thinking to five basic sensitivities. These “five C’s of historical thinking” are change over time, context, causality, contingency, and complexity. If someone can weave these sensibilities into their thinking process, they are well on their way to good historical thinking. The categories are not too hard to understand. The problem is that they are unnatural and thus hard to learn.

When trying to understand anything we take our frame of reference (our knowledge, experiences, and habits of mind) and apply it to what we are confronted with in order to make sense of it. When someone travels to a new place they can make sense of a lot of what is happening, but definitely not all of it. This understanding can be complicated if they do not know the language. It can be complicated if the dominant religion is different. It can be complicated if we know nothing of the history of this location. It can be complicated for many reasons. If you live in Minnesota (which I have for about 16 months as of writing this) it takes some time to learn in what ways “Minnesota nice” is different than other kinds of “nice.”

61q8hSE8AhL._SX331_BO1,204,203,200_We begin to overcome these potential misunderstandings by assuming we do not know what all these things mean (I’m still working on the Minnesota nice one). This is where we can apply the five C’s. The fact is that good historians are almost never satisfied with quick solutions when a new problem arises. They have the developed sensibility to think patiently and “cultivate puzzlement,” as Sam Wineburg mentioned in his widely referenced book: Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts. The main point is that when we approach something new and different we have to realize that our frames of references are pretty limited in comparison to the vastness of human history. Epistemic humility is a basic assumption. We have to keep asking questions so that we can build a thick understanding of something. Hard questions almost never have easy answers. We cannot begin to truly know something until we first agree that we do not know everything about that thing. When criticized, many in our day like to retort that “you don’t know me!” And, based on the five C’s of historical thinking, they are probably right. Here Wineburg is pure gold: “Paradoxically, what allows us to come to know others is our distrust in our capacity to know them, a skepticism about the extraordinary sense-making abilities that allow us to construct the world around us” (24).

That brings me to unicorns. Wineburg relates a story from the travels of Marco Polo where he was confronted with a new animal. He did what we all do, he tried to make sense of it through his frame of reference. He was confused by this new type of animal, “which are scarcely smaller than elephants. They have the hair of a buffalo…[and] a single large, black horn in the middle of the forehead. They do not attack with their horns, but only with their tongues and their knees; for their tongues are furnished with long sharp spines.” Polo concluded he had seen a unicorn. The problem was that “they are very ugly brutes to look at…not at all such as we describe them when…they let themselves be captured by virgins” (quoted in Wineburg, 24). Polo’s problem was his frame of reference had to be expanded. To actually understand what he was seeing required he not assume he had a wide enough frame of reference to understand. Again, Wineburg is right: “Our encounter with history presents us with a choice: to learn about rhinoceroses or to learn about unicorns. We naturally incline toward unicorns—they are prettier and more tame. But it is the rhinoceros that can teach us far more than we could ever imagine” (24). We ought to cultivate the historical sensibilities that help us see the things of the past that are unusual to us. Without them we see unicorns instead of rhinos. This is what it means to understanding history on its own terms.

You may notice that throughout this article I explored rules of historical thinking and applied them to thinking in general. That is because these ways of thinking are really helpful in our general life. A little humility, a little sensibility about the unusual, and a little more patient, deliberate thinking would go a long way. That is the heart of why history as a subject has long been considered necessary to nearly every level of education. It is more than just the events and people of history that is important, it is the ability to think well about history that we are after. Good historical thinking is a necessary skill, but it has to be cultivated.

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