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The Elegant Historical Mind[1]:

Selected Characteristics Of Those Who Think Historically

  • Imagination: The capability to imagine what the past was like. (Historians read sufficiently in order to allow them to envision what life was like in 1790.)
  • Historical Context: The ability to understand the past (of people, events, issues) within its own setting (historical context).
  • Historical Skills: Recognize the skills used by historians—past and present—and the world over.
  • Consideration: The ability to understand and appreciate why people in the past did what they did. Historians want to know if the works they engage have value and interest.
  • Vocabulary. Study the language of professional historians.
    • i.e. Historicity—“Historical authenticity,” “Historical Fact.”
  • Morality and Truth. Learning to apply ethical assumptions of historical events within context; and determine historical truth.
  • Avoidance and Honesty. Recognize, understand, evaluate, and stay away from non-historical forms of analysis:
    • Racism/Bias—Utilizing racist or bias constructs that involve racialized dispersions on the nature of humanity (not the same as evaluation supported by credible evidence; or the critique of racist historiography)
    • “Presentism”[1]—generally refers to the process of overlaying the present on to the past
    • Denial—disavowing historical fact without offering credible evidence to support your thesis
    • “Ghost” Debates—arguing with nameless scholars and undisclosed sources, failing to identify the basis for argumentation if not commonly known
    • However, be honest about one’s own use of non-historical analytical forms, and why these forms are advanced.
  • Conceptual Thinking. Learning to think about the past (of societies for example) through several conceptions of involving time movement and relational impact:
    • Continuity
    • Progress
    • Decline
    • Change
    • Circularity
    • Cause and Effect
  • Relevance. Deciding what is important (of historical value) based on what you are studying.
  • Inquiry. Developing complex, probing, interesting questions about historical subjects.
  • Know Thy Self.Understand how the historian, as an individual—a person with a specific past unto him or herself—thinks about knowledge (epistemology), culture, religion, gender, politics, etc.
    • This will influence how evidence is considered
  • Procedures: Know the processes for conducting historical research.
  • Engage Evidence. Historians work with the evidence that involves deeper levels of inquiry.
    • Decide what historical layers you need to delve (i.e. what is the subtext of “A” and why is the subtext of “A” important).
    • Verify historical information.
    • Follow important “leads” found in your evidence.
    • Evaluate and interpret sources of historical information. Understand and articulate how your research differs from similar efforts mounted by others.


Dr. Katherine Bankole-Medina

[1] Passionately debated, “presentism,” depending on the definition used, is advocated by many prominent historians, scholars, and intellectuals.

[Excerpted and modified (outlined) from the unpublished article, The Elegant Historical Mind, by Katherine Bankole-Medina © 2011]