Pedagogies of Scarcity vs. the History Student's Need for Cognitive Flexibility

Pedagogies of scarcity serve history particularly poorly. Cognitive psychologists categorize academic disciplines in terms of how structured or unstructured they are. The result is a spectrum ranging from Euclidian geometry at one end to history at the other. One equilateral triangle possesses precisely the same mathematical characteristics as every other. History, in contrast, has no axioms from which we can derive theorems. At best we may find lessons that, we are quick to emphasize, must be used with care. The historian who has studied one revolution knows only too well that others differ in crucial respects. In well-structured fields, one practitioner can replicate another’s work. This is because the chemist, for example, can specify each condition obtained during the initial reaction. Historians cannot. We know that much of the evidence for any historical event is missing.

The evidence we do have on any given topic, and it can fill whole archives, comes in many forms and requires a large measure of cognitive flexibility to decipher. Chemists have the Periodic Table in which every element has a place. Despite the many subdisciplines, all chemistry begins and ends with the Periodic Table. Historians have chronology. Henry Ford once defined history as “one damn thing after another.” He was not altogether mistaken. What he did not appreciate was the very large repertoire of skills needed to make some sense of these events. Take Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address, for example. One can read it solely in the light of the war’s imminent ending. One can read it as Lincoln’s explanation for why the enormous carnage of the war was necessary. But to understand his invocation of sin and divine justice, one needs to read it in the context of the Second Great Awakening. It is as much a sermon as a political speech. History requires its practitioners to adopt multiple perspectives and work with diverse materials. We know there is no one best way to study any event, any more than there is any one poem by Emily Dickinson that perfectly exemplifies her work.

Scarcity serves history so ill because it requires zero-sum choices. Textbooks can devote two paragraphs to the Paris Commune, let us say. Many treat it even more summarily. There is so much to cover and rigidly limited space. So the author(s) must choose one, and only one, approach. So too the instructors. How much time can we spare to amplify the textbook treatment? The result is that the Commune often becomes grist for the short answer mill. Students memorize a few facts and hope to recall enough of them to write fifty words. This sort of travesty does not happen in Chem. classes. There are accurate definitions of important processes that all practitioners need to learn. The short-answer test is a convenient way to determine if students are keeping up. The point, however, is that they are keeping up not just with the work of the course but with the learning real chemists rely upon. Nothing a student says about the Commune in fifty or so words has any historical meaning.

This takes us to another problem pedagogies of scarcity pose for history. There is only one type of correct answer in chemistry. Correct answers in history are of two sorts. One is “factual.”  There is a body of information every practitioner needs to know. Every American historian can identify James Buchanan, for example. The other kind of correct answer is conventional wisdom of the sort the statement “Slavery caused the Civil War” exemplifies. The problem with this kind of correct answer is that it is a parody of historical thinking. What, we fear to ask, might the student mean by “caused”? Neither type of correct answer forms a basis for further learning. This is obvious in the case of conventional wisdom. Almost twenty years ago, I went into class and asked my students what exactly is meant by the textbook phrase “It opened the West” in reference to the Erie Canal. Would anyone care to sketch the route of the canal? There were no takers. OK, what was the West in the 1820s? Furtive glances and blank looks were all I got. Why was I unsatisfied? Students silently wondered. They had given me the correct answer.

We may want to claim that there is some value in knowing some basic facts of history. And, of course, there is, provided you do something with them. What do students do? Those in our introductory classes usually memorize such facts and then forget them within weeks or months, as a number of studies have demonstrated. Chemistry students also forget most of the information they acquire. But they engage in authentic learning nonetheless. They do real chemistry. Our students in introductory classes may do real history, but pedagogies of scarcity work against the possibility of useful learning. In chemistry, similar pedagogies foster it. There commonly is, in basic chemistry courses, a single best way to do things. There are model problems and model experiments. There are formulas.

History deals in the unique. Very similar events never prove identical; not even attending the second grade in the same school with the same teacher in successive years will create identical experiences.  The chemist can control the conditions in the laboratory, can measure precisely each quantity, and can time reactions to within minute fractions of seconds. The historian knows no such precision. Sometimes it is possible to measure something exactly, the results in the Electoral College for a given presidential election, for example. Usually it is not. Popular vote counts are approximations of the real vote totals. Herbert Hoover defeated Al Smith by so many votes, we may write. But we know that the seven-digit number we come up with is a convenient fiction. Hoover won in a landslide; the margins of his victories in the states he carried were beyond the margins of error. That is what we actually know. And much of what historians deal with resists quantification and measurement altogether. We cannot rank the fervor of Jonathan Edwards’ converts in Northampton on a numerical scale. But we know that fervor is important in explaining the First Great Awakening. Further, despite our reliance upon chronology, we are hard pressed to say when important developments started or whether they are actually over. When did industrialization get underway in Great Britain? When did the French Revolution end? Historians debate chronology because basic analytical notions are imprecise.

Elements stay put in their assigned places in the Periodic Table. Historical actors change. They reflect upon their own experiences and those of others. They learn. Understanding Bismarck’s approach to the Catholic parties in the new Germany, for example, tells us something, but only something, about his policies toward the socialists. He once dismissed criticism that he had abandoned a position by saying that the difference between himself and his critic was that he had learned something. So even as we attempt to look at the world through the perspective of people in the past, the angle of vision keeps changing.

History, as a result, is a realm of ambiguity. Our interpretations are always tentative. We know that new evidence may turn up. New ways of thinking about old evidence will certainly emerge. This is not analogous to new discoveries in science. Astronomers find new galaxies and, of late, planets. As they do, they add to what is known about the universe. Sometimes they encounter anomalies. If these are serious enough, they have to rethink theories and design new experiments or observations to test them. Historians too routinely add to knowledge about the past. And we frequently question older interpretations. But we do not test our own ideas or anyone else’s. We can only look for new evidence, which is not the same thing. New evidence may invalidate a given interpretation. It cannot prove another is correct. Our situation does not resemble what Thomas Kuhn called normal science. We do not work to elaborate well-established theories. We necessarily adopt a multiplicity of views and approaches. Pedagogies of scarcity provide students with a false understanding of the field precisely to the extent that they fail to contribute to the development of intellectual flexibility.

Next: Inauthentic Assignments and Student Coping