The Role of Uncertainty in Historical Thinking

I read a really interesting article today on Aeon from Stanford University history professor Caroline Winterer about the American Revolution, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, and enlightenment ideals. The underlying thesis of the article is partly rooted in the idea that Americans today have mythologized and flattened the legacies of the country’s various constitutional framers in ways that diminish the complexity of their thinking and their basic humanity. That’s not necessarily a new or bold thesis, but the way Winterer approaches this conclusion is pretty unique to me. Most notably she points out that the British philosopher John Locke–an imposing intellectual figure in the minds of many of the country’s framers–believed that while knowledge was obtained not through a divine God but through the five senses (empiricism) and language, the extent to which humans could trust their senses to provide an objective understanding of reality was very much uncertain. Similarly, since language was man-made and not the creation of God, the meanings ascribed to any word were subject to interpretation and merely “arbitrary signs that represent ideals.” What this meant for the framers, according to the Winterer, was that the feeling of uncertainty was a prevalent accompaniment in their efforts to create a functioning government and a civil society:

In fact, the American founders were uncertain about many things. They were uncertain about politics, nature, society, economics, human beings and happiness. The sum total of human knowledge was smaller in the 18th century, when a few hardy souls could still aspire to know everything. But even in this smaller pond of knowledge, and within a smaller interpretive community of political actors, the founders did not pretend certainty on the questions of their day. Instead they routinely declared their uncertainty.

While I freely admit that I am no expert of early American history, this interpretation strikes me as largely correct. The effort to create a constitution based on laws and not kings or divine providence was bold, ambitious, and fraught with uncertainty, which is why the framers established a process for amending the constitution to improve it in the future. But this article also got me thinking about the ways we teach history to middle school and high school students and why we need to make the idea of uncertainty a central element in teaching students how to think historically.

It is easy to look back at past events in hindsight and diagnose certain events as “inevitable.” Civil War historian Gary Gallagher, for example, often points out how easy it is to see the U.S. military’s victory at Gettysburg and conclude that this battle clearly led to an inevitable victory over the Confederates in the Civil War. But by understanding the sense of uncertainty people felt as events happened in real time, within circumstances often beyond their control, we can better empathize with the ways people in the past understood and reacted to the contingencies of their lives and their times. And perhaps we can teach students to embrace uncertainty in their own lives rather than seeing it as something to fear.

Growing up during the No Child Left Behind Era led to most of my history classes emphasizing standardized tests, most of which were exclusively multiple choice. The tests and lessons I encountered emphasized rote memorization of facts, which in turn portrayed the study of history as an exercise in the mastery of information and the people of the past as all-knowing figures who in many cases were certain of the consequences of their actions (especially those who fought in the American Revolution and helped create the Constitution). By focusing on the importance of critically analyzing primary and secondary sources, making reasoned interpretations based on the available evidence for a particular historical event, and making evidence-based arguments through written, oral, and digital means, history teachers can perhaps bring the uncertainty of the past (and the present!) into the forefront of building historical thinking skills.



One response

  1. Nick, this is a thoughtful piece. When I teach early colonial history, especially regarding the Spanish conquest of Mesoamerica, I try to emphasize the uncertainty that those involved had about the eventual outcome. It was never clear in the early years of battle between the Spaniards and the Aztecs who would prevail. In fact, the Aztecs seemed to be in better position; besides having the home-field advantage, they had far greater numbers and a more advanced civilization. Only after disease, crop failures, and internal dissension took their toll on native populations did the Spanish invaders get the upper hand. It is only in historical retrospect that the outcome seems in any way certain. Thank you for pointing out this important but usually forgotten fact of historical reality. ♨

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