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Consider the following thinking on the part of a student taking a course in history:

"To do well in this course, I must begin to think historically. I must not read the textbook as a bunch of disconnected stuff to remember but as the thinking of the historian. I must myself begin to think like a historian. I must begin to be clear about historical purposes (What are historians trying to accomplish?). I must begin to ask historical questions (and recognize the historical questions being asked in the lectures and textbook). I must begin to sift through historical information, drawing some historical conclusions. I must begin to question where historical information comes from. I must notice the historical interpretations that the historian forms to give meaning to historical information. I must question those interpretations (*at least sufficiently to understand them). I must begin to question the implications of various historical interpretations and begin to see how historians reason to their conclusions. I must begin to look at the world as historians do, to develop a historical viewpoint. I will read each chapter in the textbook looking explicitly for the elements of thought in that chapter. I will actively ask (historical) questions in class from the critical thinking perspective. I will begin to pay attention to my own historical thinking in my everyday life, I will try, in short, to make historical thinking a more explicit and prominent part of my thinking."

Students who approach history classes as historical thinking begin to understand the historical dimension of other subjects as well. For example, they begin to recognize that every subject itself has a history and that the present state of the subject is a product of its historical evolution. What is more, such historically-thinking students also notice the overlap between history as a study of the relatively recent past of humans (the last 30,000 years) and the much longer history of humans (canvassed in anthropology). They are able to place these last 30,000 years (which seem a long time when we first think of it) into the larger historical perspective of anthropology which begins its study of the human past some 2,000,000 years ago when our ancestors were small, hairy, apelike creatures who used tools such as digging sticks and clubs, walked upright, carried their tools, and lived on plant food. What is more, they see this longer history breaking down into stages: from hunting and gathering [groups] to agricultural civilizations to industrial civilizations to post-industrial civilizations.

And that is not all. They are then able to take this historical perspective and put it into a yet larger historical view by shifting from anthropological thinking to geographical thinking. They grasp that human history is itself a small part of a much older history, that of mammals, and that the age of mammals was preceded by an age of reptiles, and that by the age of coal-plants. and that by the age of fish, and that by the age of mollusks. They can then take the next step and grasp that geological history, even though reaching back thousands of millions of years is comparatively short when compared to that of the solar system, while that of the solar system is comparatively short when compared to the galaxy, while that of the galaxy is comparatively short when compared to the universe itself. 

Students' capacity to think historically in larger and larger time spans continues to develop as their study of all subjects is transformed by a developing sense of the drama of time itself. They are then able to shift from history to pre-history, from pre-history to anthropological history, and from anthropological history to geological history, and from geological history to astronomical history. In this ever-expanding perspective,  the history of human knowledge is pitifully short: a mili-second geologically, a mili-mili second astronomically. It is only a second ago - astronomically speaking - that a species has emerged, Homo Sapiens, which drives itself, and creates the conditions to which it itself must then adapt in new and unpredictable ways [See Time Chart Page]. It is only a mili-second ago that we have developed the capacity, though not the propensity, to think critically.

Essential Idea: It is possible to think deeply within a subject and see applications of that thinking in related subjects. Doing so increases the power of thinking and learning.


Paul, Richard and Linda Elder, The Thinkers Guide For Students On How to Study and Learn a Discipline Using Critical Thinking Concepts and Tools, The Foundation for Critical Thinking, Dillon Beach, CA, 2003.