After World War II, colleges were full of GIs securing the benefits of the 1944 Servicemen’s Readjustment Act (the “GI Bill”). Benjamin Samuel Bloom, a professor of education at the University of Chicago, worked with colleagues to organize the multiplicity of “learning objectives” issued by academic departments. First, they created a classificatory scheme. Then they created new assessments to measure the range of abilities.

Believe it or not, Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives became the poster pyramid for learning. As Sam Wineburg, Professor of Education and History at Stanford University, in his recent book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), dryly observed, “if ever there was an antidote to chaos, Bloom provided one.” Knowledge is the “low hanging fruit,” with trickier things like synthesis and evaluation at the “lofty summit of intellectual mountaineers.” Bloom assumed that knowledge is the set of building blocks to assemble before creating judgments. But is this the way that history works? Not so, says Wineburg.

Mastering knowledge, or a set of information, does not necessarily teach students (or us) how to think. According to Wineburg, history is not merely a collection of facts, but an “intellectual enterprise that requires piecing together a cogent and accurate story from partial scraps of faded words.” This is a process that is endless because the destinations lead to new beginnings. True historical inquiry ends where it begins: with a question mark. Exclamation point! (that’s me, not Wineburg). That’s why all good history is revisionist history. We are always asking new questions and looking at information in new ways.

Is Bloom’s taxonomy the reason why history classrooms merely memorize of fat files of information: names, dates, and events? Does reading textbooks lead to Bloom’s defined critical thinking skills of analysis, synthesis, and evaluation? Wineburg tested this information by studying Advanced Placement history classes in three different high schools. High school students were given the newspaper article of the 1892 Proclamation by President Benjamin Harrison marking “Discovery Day.” One student, Jacob read the document historically by writing this:

“The first thing that jumps out is the Columbus is a pioneer of ‘progress and enlightenment’ which is one way of looking at it, but from what I’ve learned, his goals were not entirely noble. Just get rich, whatever. Find a way to the Indies. Show that the world wasn’t flat. It praises him for his devout faith…he claimed to be a true Christian, but he also captured and tortured Indians, so he wasn’t maybe a noble as this is having him be.”

Teachers responded by praising Jacob for comprehending the document (knowledge), then applying information by comparing the document with his own information. Jacob identified multiple interpretations of Columbus (analysis, synthesis), and cast doubt with his criticism of Columbus (evaluation). Teachers were thrilled at Jacob’s higher level thinking skills.

Wineburg then presented the same document to a group of PhD history students at the University of California and the University of Washington, none of whom had a specialized knowledge about Columbus. They had a strikingly different reaction:

“The expansion of the heroic pantheon to include former undesirables.”
“The shameless appeal to superheroes in order to gain votes in urban centers.”
“The beginning of Pan-Whiteness in postbellum America (or ‘look who gets into country clubs these days’)”
“It’s 1892.”

What?!? For a historian, critical thinking is not just about acquiring a bunch of facts to pass judgment (though it may seem that way sometimes). Good historians know what questions to ask to produce new knowledge. For the graduate students, this document about President Harrison was a product of a particular moment. And 1892, not 1492, means something. But what did it mean? This is where historians start, writes Wineburg. With questions. Graduate students discussed the 1890s, the beginning of the Progressive Era, the end of the century, the ‘closing’ of the frontier, and the upcoming Columbian Exposition alongside the biggest waves of immigration in U.S. history. According to historians, Harrison’s declaration of “Discovery Day” was a political act designated to appeal to millions of new voters. Harrison, a Republican, was in a tight race with Democrat Grover Cleveland. Irish Catholics were particularly courted by Harrison. In the end, Harrison lost.

Witty barbs aside, the graduate students approached the document with basic questions: what am I looking at? When was it written? What was going on at the time? Where was it written? Where did it appear? First page or eighth? Who was the intended audience? For historians, critical thinking means asking questions to figure out what we need to know to better understand the source and its time. Those questions are what Wineburg calls the specification of ignorance. We work to figure out exactly what sorts of information to find by asking the right questions (hopefully). That is what separates the historians from the smart high school kids like Jacob. We are less interested in pronouncements and more interested in framing questions, puzzling, and provoking more questions in order to seek new knowledge. For historians, Bloom’s pyramid belongs upside down.

Of course Bloom’s taxonomy is useful. Knowledge is a prerequisite to critical thinking. Yet there cannot be new knowledge without new questions.

When is the last time we asked questions instead of making pronouncements?

From Sam Wineburg, Why Study History? (When It’s Already on Your Phone), (Chicago: Ill: University of Chicago Press, 2018), chapter 4.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

4 Comments

  • mstair says:

    When is the last time we asked questions instead of making pronouncements?

    …clever, Rebecca … closing like that sort of supersedes the appropriateness of comments (pronouncements )
    so …questions … let’s see …

    Is this a subtle observation of mental laziness utilized by right-wing political supporters?
    Is that all there is?
    Who put the bop in the bop-she-bop?

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      Mstair – this is not a subtle observation of right wing mental laziness. Why did you think so?
      This is an observation of everyone who lives in this era of information overload. It also highlights the real work that all good historians do.

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    I’m sorry about the above comment. The post deserves better.

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