In my 13 years as a teacher of high school American and world history, not once had I heard the term historiography. This was simply not a concept that was introduced in my college history courses nor one that would appear in my vast reading of American history. It was not until I was teaching at the university level that I first happened on the term while reading James Loewen’s Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History. After that, I dug a bit deeper and found the concept to be essential to truly understanding history itself. I was astounded that no one had ever thought to teach me about historiography before, and I knew I had to ensure that my future social studies teachers needed to be exposed to and practice historiography so that they could broaden their own and their students’ understanding of history.
Simply, historiography is not the study of history but the history of history, the examination of what influences the interpretation of past events and how such interpretation evolves over time. As James Loewen suggests, history is not what happened; it is what we say happened. Historiography also provides a lens through which how historical sources and interpretations of those sources are debated among historians. Historiography, then, is the study of how history changes, and why.
Historical thinking, the skill set advanced by the likes of Sam Wineburg and emphasized in the NCSS C3 Framework, and historiography are similar and overlapping concepts. Both are exercises in critical source analysis, requiring that we ask a series of important questions about the author, when the source was created, the intended audience, and potential biases. In this sense, historiography and historical thinking are, to paraphrase Harry Truman, two halves of the same nut. Where historiography takes the study of history further is by asking the students to examine the evolution of how a particular history has been told over time. In other words, studying a historical topic through a historiographical lens helps students to better understand the elasticity of history itself.
It is important for students and teachers to recognize that history itself changes with each piece of new evidence scholarship, with shifts in political winds, and with new ways of thinking about and interpreting the meaning behind historical events and documents. Incorporating historiography into the students’ history toolbox is the difference between seeing history as the past versus an interpretation of the past. Viewing history through a historiographical lens also requires us to consider the ways historians use and present a variety of sources, and how those sources lead to particular conclusions with which other historians may disagree. Historiography opens many new avenues for historical study and source analysis by reminding all of us—teachers, students, citizens—that renditions of the past are very much a reflection of who we were, and are, when we write them.
Historiography can also help students to understand what the field of history represents: a large number of individuals combing through flawed and finite sources of evidence at specific times in history, resulting in debate and disagreement over the meaning and importance of particular sources as well as the influence of those sources on the interpretations of the past. Historians do not research and write in a vacuum, nor is the writing of history a once-and-done endeavor. History, due to the emergence of new research avenues, historical evidence, and interpretations, is and always has been revisited and revised with regularity. Through historiography, students can understand that, like most other fields and endeavors, the writing and interpretation of history is subject to considerable disagreement and debate among historians, often while looking at the same historical evidence.
Benjamin, Craig. “The Value of Historiography in World History Teacher Training,” Social Studies Review 49, no. 1 (Spring 2010): 8–13.
Fallace, Thomas and Neem, Johann N. “Historiographical Thinking: Towards a New Approach to Preparing History Teachers,” Theory and Research in Social Education 33, no. 3
(June 1, 2005): 333.
Loewen, James. Teaching What Really Happened: How to Avoid the Tyranny of Textbooks & Get Students Excited About Doing History. New York: Teachers College Press, 2010.
Sabathne, James and Stacy, Jason. “Introduction: A Guide for Students on Active Reading and Reading Historically” in Past Forward: Articles from the Journal of American History,
edited by James Sabathne and Jason Stacy, 1-6. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
Ward, Kyle. History in the Making: An Absorbing Look at How American History Has Changed in the Telling Over the Last 200 Years. New York: New Press, 2006.
Wineburg, Sam. Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2001.