Novice Historian

“The Novice Historian”, A Preface to History, by Carl G. Gustavson

Like most learning activities, historical-mindedness develops gradually, almost imperceptibly, with many errors and hesitancies. . . .   The mentor may teach by example, but the student must do his own thinking in order to achieve historical-mindedness.

Only knowledge that is actually used will become a part of oneself.  This may explain why some students feel that history consists of innumerable facts to be memorized–the dead past.  They feel this way because they let it become just that by not studying it properly.  The caricature of history, still widely entertained, which depicts It as a study of names and dates and battles, of a dreary succession of events learned for a test and then forgotten, is due, above all, to the student’s method of study.  By memorizing only, he is trying to take a short cut to knowledge, and he himself reduces history to that level.  He often stops studying at the precise point where he is finally ready to begin.

It is quite true that a history course contains a rather formidable array of facts which must be learned in one way or another.  We call this orderly collection of knowledge about the past a frame of reference.  This personal filing system of one’s knowledge consists of fairly detailed information about the successive important events during the development of our society and culture.  A great many of the facts have to be learned on faith, relying on the assurance that these have been screened, reduced to a workable minimum, while still presenting a useful frame of reference.  As the student goes on in school, he will be surprised at how many of the facts will reappear in other courses, and the earlier knowledge will begin to pay immediate dividends.  More important from a long-term point of view, an adequate frame of reference enables a person to derive full benefit from a book or newspaper or magazine, inasmuch as he is enabled to recognize allusions and can amplify, from his own memory, cursory references as he meets them.

One of the secrets of the education process is that the more one knows, the more one learns.  The greater the amount of factual knowledge possessed, the easier it is to tie in new material, to associate the new with the old in such a way that it remains a permanent acquisition.  Learning multiplies by a sort of mathematical progression as familiarity with the subject increases.  An individual who is studying by means of associations is learning more pleasantly, more quickly, and more permanently than one who tries to take the deceptive short cut of rote memory of the printed page.

When a student memorizes names or an outline, he is preparing to study.  He is like a student in a laboratory who is getting his materials ready for an experiment.  When the latter has completed his preparations, he does not abruptly announce that the experiment is completed.  The beginning history student, however, is prone to quit once he has the materials for thinking things out.  He ought to force himself to sit quietly for a while longer, seeking associations which he can make, known knowledge which will help him remember the new material.  If he cannot relate it to his historical frame of reference, let him apply information from other sources or from personal experiences.  The contemporary scene frequently lends itself to comparisons, and here is where a student who reads newspapers and magazines will have a decided advantage.

It may be objected that there is not time for such a procedure.  The truth is that there is not time for any other method except this one; the student is actually learning, whereas otherwise he is only cramming for a quiz.  The process will take a little longer at first.  The beginner will very-quickly, however, learn to combine the memorizing and thinking in such a way that both will require less time than a single one did formerly.  This is what the top-grade student has learned to do.  Much of the knack to studying history is to be found in knowing what not to learn.  The beginner wastes time and energy because everything seems of equal importance.  Only as greater perception develops will he be able to separate the more significant statements from material necessary to a balanced narrative but not vital in itself.

The real objection is often not with the time element but with a more intangible obstacle.  Genuine thinking along intellectual lines may be rather painful to the novice.  The situation can become intensely frustrating. . . .

The trick lies in knowing how to put the mind to work by providing something for it to think about.  Asking oneself questions will accomplish this elementary and necessary purpose.