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Video transcript

I think one of the most underrated skills for learning history is learning how to think like a historian and what do I mean by thinking like a historian does that mean that you have to go out and buy a tweed jacket with some elbow patches and maybe grow a long white beard and sit around all day pondering whether the Civil War was caused by slavery or states rights no but you can try that if you want but I would say thinking like a historian is a little bit like being a combination between a storyteller and a scientist are you going to see me draw a really really bad beaker here there we go some little fans coming off of that and a lawyer maybe I'll put a gavel here it's a gavel not a croquet mallet or hammer so first let's start with a storytelling aspect I think one of the most important things that we can learn from telling this story of history is that in a good story nothing just happens right right imagine a story where everything just happened the story would be the wind blows the earth turns right no one is making those things happen and that's why it's kind of a boring story because it doesn't show cause and effect and that cause and effect is really the backbone of history right and you would be surprised how often people can fall into the trap of telling history this incredible story about what people have done in the past that has led to the society we have to a as if it were kind of a laundry list of events that just followed one after another without any possibility of things being different people will say and then World War two happened or and then the United States was born right those statements are in passive voice because they don't talk about the people who make these things happen and really short of a natural disaster pretty much everything happens in history because people made it happen so when you think like a historian you kind of think the same way that a novelist might think okay what is this character's motive what are they going to do to make their wish come true what are the influences that lead a person to make certain choices and just like people make choices nations make choices right World War one didn't just happen and just as people make choices actions have consequences you wouldn't write a story where a thief stole a hundred million dollars and the police didn't even try to come after her neither can you write a story about history without talking about the effects that actions have on people so that's the storytelling aspect of thinking like a historian let's talk about the scientific aspect we often think of history as something that's it's pretty much done right it's a series of events that happened in the past and now we just have to memorize what happened so we can learn from it and maybe have a good idea about what to do in the future but really there's only so much we can actually know about what happened in the past and so historians always have to do a kind of research to understand what happened and get a better idea of what people were feeling so just like scientists have theories when historians think about the past they're really thinking about theories as well they're saying okay I have a theory about what caused the evolution of jazz in the 1920s why did jazz become a major popular form of music in the 1920s well I'm going to theorize it was because people were reacting to the horror of World War one which made so many people interested in kind of staccato notes and discordant sounds all right so that's a theory well how do you go about proving a theory and the answer is you do research and you consult evidence right and the way that you do that in history is usually by doing a lot of reading right you might say all right well let me take the letters of some jazz musicians from this time period and see what they write about maybe they write all about how they experienced battle in World War one and they were trying to reflect that in their music or maybe they write that World War One had nothing to do with their interest in music actually they wanted to simulate the sounds of flight because they were so interested in modern forms of transportation so our understanding of what happened in the past is always just a theory I mean we have a pretty good idea of what was going on most of the time but new information comes to light all the time right I mean people are always cleaning out their grandma's attic and finding some new documents and as the preponderance of the evidence shifts and changes so might our understanding of the past the last aspect of thinking like a historian I want to talk about is this kind of lawyerly aspect and what I mean by this is that historians are always making an argument just like a lawyer gets up in a courtroom and says here's my idea now let me support it with the evidence from witnesses from experts from objects that we might have found at a crime scene a historian is saying believe my theory believe my evidence and I think the analogy of law is really powerful here because you could see the same pieces of evidence used to support two different arguments so for example say there's maybe a sock that was found at the scene of a crime right here's our sock I am NOT a beautiful artist but maybe the prosecution tries to argue that the accused must have committed this crime because the sock is his size all right the sock shows he did it whereas the defense might say my client never wears socks he always wears sandals so it's clear that the sock shows that he couldn't possibly have been the one to do this crime so that's how we end up with so many different interpretations of the same event the task of the historian is to gather evidence and to present an argument that they think will best convince the public of their interpretation and so these interpretations do change over time so in later videos we'll get into the nuts and bolts of how you tell these stories and make these arguments but for now I just kind of want you to see that thinking like a historian is not something that only historians can do it's actually a really useful skill for lots of aspects of your life we tell stories search for evidence and make arguments in our lives all the time about things that we interact with every day like our favorite bands our favorite foods our political views right we base those on our own experiences consequences in our lives and evidence that we see around us and we can do the same thing for the past it's not such a foreign country what we have are the remnants of that past and the ability to interpret them