Thinking Like A Historian: Perspectives in History


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A perspective is a point of view. Some examples are age, sex, and religion. Perspective helps us to understand how people think, believe, and experience events. A biased perspective is an unbalanced and unfair point of view. A complete understanding of history requires analysis of perspective. Different perspectives provide a more complete account. Both historical sources and historians have a range of perspectives. 

Thinking Like A Historian 

History is the study of human events. 

Many people reading a history book accept the account at face value. People live and die. They do noteworthy things. We keep track of dates, wars, presidential elections, and significant documents.  The book is a straightforward account of what happened. 

A historian takes a closer look. A careful reading of the material will provide a richer understanding. A significant factor is the perspective of the author and their source material. 

What Is Perspective? 

A perspective is a point of view. It is a way of seeing something. A perspective is often not biased. Two perspectives can both be correct in different ways.  

An author might provide a perspective that is not their own.  For instance, a “devil’s advocate” considers the opposite point of view, one they often personally do not support.  

Types of Perspective 

Each characteristic of a person can provide different perspectives. 

Some examples of perspectives are age, gender, nationality, politics, culture, religion, occupation, and the period they live in. Baby boomers and Generation Z have different perspectives. Nonetheless, women of different generations share certain points of view. 

The term “intersectionality” explains how each person has different characteristics. Vice President Kamala Harris is biracial, a woman, from California, a Democrat, and born in the 1960s. Each aspect provides a separate point of view. They interact in diverse ways.

Why Perspective Is Valuable  

Historical perspective allows us to understand the social, cultural, intellectual, and emotional aspects that shape people’s lives and actions. 

We can “step in the shoes” of the people involved. Perspective provides a type of historical empathy, an ability to understand others. 

Everyone does not have the same point of view. Perspective helps us to understand how people think, believe, and experience events. 

Different Perspectives Do Not Mean One Side Is Wrong 

If three people go to a movie, they might explain the experience differently. 

If we ask each person (a mom, dad, and child), they will highlight separate things. Parents might judge the film differently because of their point of view. The daughter might remember the dinner beforehand in more detail because she has a crush on the waiter. 

Are any of these perspectives wrong? Not necessarily. A bias is a one-sided, usually unfair, preference or tendency toward a point of view. Different viewpoints are often not biased.

It is helpful to understand the perspective of a source. The point of view helps us judge a source’s reliability. It also allows us to determine what might be left out. 

Ways to Determine Perspective 

A perspective is the point of view of the creator of a document. The perspective of a letter is that of the author.  The perspective of a painting would be that of the artist.  

A history book is not simply a neutral source. A historian will make assumptions, have limited information, and write with a point of view. An elite male historian in Ancient Rome writing about slavery, Christianity, or women will have a different perspective than a Christian woman. 

A writer will often discuss their point of view. The introduction or preface is a popular location that provides insights into perspectives. 

Personality will also come out in how a person tells their story. If you read different accounts of the same event, what does each leave in or out or emphasize?  

A variety of words can provide hints. Look for words like feel, say, react, and believe

The historian also will use a variety of sources. A Civil War history can have perspectives from the Union, Confederacy, slaves, freemen, women, and many more groups. What sources are used and not used is a way to determine the perspective of a historical document.  

A Complete Understanding  

We start with our perspective. We have our thoughts, experiences, and biases. A historian should be able to pick out other points of view. They view things through the source’s eyes.

History is not simply dates and events. It is a complex account of people expressed in a variety of ways. A historical perspective provides a deeper understanding of what happened.

Teach and Thrive

A Bronx, NY veteran high school social studies teacher who has learned most of what she has learned through trial and error and error and error.... and wants to save others that pain.

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