Creative Historical Thinking by Michael J. Douma, New York: Routledge, 2018, 168 pp.
Creative Historical Thinking takes the reader into the mind of an historian, and what you find is almost certainly not what you would expect. Writing history turns out to be more about creativity, metaphor, entrepreneurship, and networking than memorizing facts, being accepted by elite journals, or sewing elbow patches on your tweed jacket. You can almost hear students applauding when the author notes,
“Unless an event can be seen to have an impact on your life, you are probably not going to remember it, and demanding the recall of unimportant historical facts is counterproductive to the study of history. There is good reason why I don’t know who won the Ohio gubernatorial election of 1876: it seems like such a ridiculous thing to need to be told to know.” (p. 21)
The 168 page book has a high content-to-syllable ratio. The author explains that history does not need to be taught linearly, but may be done thematically. He notes,“No good story is ever directly linear.” (p. 30) And while, “In the United States, the failure to learn the proper historical facts is seen not as just an intellectual failure but also a cultural or patriotic sin” (p. 38), the author refers to this as “The fetishization of facts” which “has long clouded the view of what a historian does.” Also, he explains, “Creative Writing” courses tend to “put words before ideas” and thus lack creative content. (p. 57)
The author does not merely explain how to be a creative historian, he displays it in a chapter on the history of his own house, and three chapters on creativity in the classroom. This includes one chapter on the surprisingly challenging discussion of “Why Men Stopped Wearing Hats.”
Throughout the book the author is winsome and personal, sharing stories from his own experiences and encouraging the reader to make use of their own experiences in improving their understanding of history. This is no dry-as-dust history nor, even worse, an arid <shudders> historiography. It is a treatise on passionate historical writing by one who is a passionate historian. The material is advanced at times, but the presentation, complete with pictures, graphs, and figures makes it accessible. With all of the valuable content plus a Question and Answers appendix addressing novice historians, this book should be of incredible value to undergraduates and really to true students in all places.
And when the student completes the book they will have the opportunity to improve the world by living up to “The Creative Historians ‘Histocratic’ Oath” in Appendix B:
“Repeat after me:
I swear by Clio the muse of history, and by Herodotus, Thucydides, Leopold von Ranke, Ken Burns, and Eric Foner that I will carry out, according to my ability and judgment, this oath and indenture.
That I will use my historical knowledge to teach the youth to treat history as a creative discipline through lectures interesting and various, material culture exercises, field trips, debates, and research projects, but never with a view towards requiring them to remember particular facts. Neither will I administer tests that ask merely for the recall of information.
On my honor, I will do my best to not be just a chronicler or plagiarist. I promise not to write another unnecessary biography of a founding father. I promise to help genealogists even when I don’t really want to. I promise always to be curious, to be dutiful in my footnoting, and never fail to listen to multiple sides of a story.”