CRM Journal

Book Review

How Students Understand the Past: From Theory to Practice

By M. Elaine Davis. Lanham, MD: AltaMira Press, 2005, 200 pp., illustrations, tables, appendices, index; cloth $72.00, paper $29.95.


Author M. Elaine Davis is an archeologist and educator who employs standard analytical techniques from the disciplines of public archeology and public history to support major points of traditional and non-traditional learning. She approaches her young, grade school learners as an anthropologist by building rapport with them to obtain research information in a non-threatening, non-invasive style of mutual respect for teacher and learner. Anthropology and the linguistic turn of the 1960s have also profoundly influenced her work. These influences, along with language and other post-modern nuances, constitute the theoretical and methodological underpinnings of her new book, How Students Understand the Past.

The book contains 9 chapters divided among 3 parts, plus an introduction, 3 data appendices, and 12 numerical tables sprinkled throughout. Although the book's title includes the phrase, "the past," it should be noted that the more recent, historical past and historical methodologies are given short shrift compared to the archeological past.

The introduction begins with the sentence, "History is made." This position is clearly articulated at length in Part II, "Constructing the Past: A Case Study from Southwestern Colorado." Her premise is that historical discourse itself is an artifact. The four chapter titles in this central Part II belie its contents. Chapter 3, "A Sense of Place," typifies the National Park Service approach to public history. Archeologists primarily, but also educational researchers, will like the methodological approach of chapters 6-8: "The Research Design and Project Parameters," "Pieces of the Past," and "Making Meaning of the Past." Also, Part I, "Teaching and Learning History," is for the historian and archeologist, the educator and the learner. Moreover, Part III, "Teaching a History That Matters," introduces the following topics: pedagogy (chapter 7), dialogue (chapter 8), and the reflexive double entendre, "Understanding Understanding" (chapter 9). Davis provides a practical reader's guide to the use and reading of the book.

In the author's view, historical and archeological narratives are the result of a subjective selection of documents and artifacts that survive fortuitously through many millennia and generations from the past. Is there a single past out there, back then, a single past that we are trying to rebuild through research and then teach to the next generation? Davis certainly answers with a resounding "no." There are as many manufactured histories as there are culture bearers in the past and learners in the present, as many histories as there are historians, as many types of historians as there are university history departments, as many historians as there are ethnic groups.

The causes of Davis's resounding "No" are populism, pluralism, and relativism. Everyone owns a "piece of the past" (her chapter 7 title). The question is, "What real-world limitations are there to this logico-conceptual world of an infinite number of histories?" From a research perspective, the answer is the primary source documents for historians and preserved artifacts for archeologists, which reduce the infinite to a miniscule number of peepholes into the past. From a teaching perspective, Davis argues in Part III, "Teaching History That Matters," the limitation is what is individually meaningful to each learner.

In both the introduction and chapter 1, Davis introduces an innovation on the winding road that never reaches, but tends toward, Peter Novick's "golden goose of objectivity."(1) She presents her "personal history" as the means of stating her investigative bias up front in a direct and forthright manner, categorizing it as context, which is very admirable and a feature of post-modern social science that is neglected by many archeological practitioners. Other archeological authors of the late 1980s have labeled it as the "unmasking" of one's biases.

Davis employs another unmasking technique, one that is required by the National Park Service's own Cultural Resource Management Guidelines (formerly NPS-28): namely, an explicit research design (chapter 3).(2) Her research design is interdisciplinary, crossing the bridges between archeology, history, educational psychology, and developmental cognition. Its topic is how youthful learners construct and internalize knowledge of the past received from teachers and from each other. The adult teachers in this process employ published essays, textbooks, field visits, museum trips, and reflexive introspection of self and learner. Davis's tactics for implementing this research design are many and also interdisciplinary. Sociological and anthropological tactics such as interview, questionnaire, and first-hand observation are used, as is documentary research and psychological (self-) profiling. In true anthropological fashion, she maintains the privacy of her informants and their institutions by the use of pseudonyms (except for Crow Canyon in which Stuart Struever, one of my mentors, played a large role).

In chapter 2, she addresses time (the archeological sine qua non), beginning with evolutionary time and creatively weaving in classical Piagetian developmental time, the Aquinian-Lockean tabula rasa issue, Wineburg's tensions, and, ontologically, homeostatic mental equilibrium.(3) Wineburg's tensions in education refer to what Davis calls "the long ago as far away" or Lowenthal's synonymous book title, The Past is a Foreign Country.(4) In order to understand this "foreign country," we must express it in our own language to make it familiar and understandable. This translation process constitutes Wineburg's cognitive tension in education and also the paradox of history. Anthropologists have developed a complex language to address this issue of describing and explaining exotic cultures, but that lexicon has not made it into either the public or the educational domains.

What has been learned as a result of Davis's research project in archeological education? Davis's answer is that a hybrid of core teaching techniques is useful.(5) This hybrid is complex, multivariate, and situational, because the educational settings are multiple: traditional classrooms; middle school seminars; outdoor archeological sites; as well as traditional "pheasant under glass" and more innovative "please touch" museums. Many techniques are drawn from undergraduate education that, decades ago, were the exclusive province of graduate education, such as guided independent studies, group and collegial seminars, intellectual coaching, and even old-fashioned traditional pedagogy (that is to say, didactic instruction). Techniques have gradually filtered down from higher levels of education to lower levels.

What all this means to this reviewer is that traditional barriers have been crossed—barriers between research and education, between graduate school education and middle school education, and between adult teacher and youthful learner. This process has been on-going for half a century. Education and research have been democratized in the current phase of American cultural populism.(6) Moreover, two emphases of the 18th-century Enlightenment, individuation and the breakdown of institutional authority, are proceeding apace today and have re-entered the American classroom. Davis's heavily structured, heavily methodological research is one such well-reasoned and well-researched move in that direction.

Huzzah for Davis, an archeologist in part, which is not surprising considering that Michel Foucault—a 20th-century, enlightened French philosopher—had written The Archaeology of Knowledge.(7) Foucault's book was instrumental in destroying barriers in the 1960s, creating ripples in many tradition-bound disciplines. Archeologist Davis's How Students Understand the Past holds similar promise for the 21st century.

James W. Mueller
Independence National Historical Park



1. Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

2. National Park Service, Cultural Resource Management Guideline, Release No. 5 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1997).

3. Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press, 2001).

4. David Lowenthal, The Past is a Foreign Country (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

5. Those core teaching techniques are drawn from Understanding by Design and from the Paideia Active Learning model associated with philosopher Mortimer Adler, which Davis references along with Wineburg, Historical Thinking (cf. note 3). See Grant Wiggins and J. McTighe, Understanding by Design (Alexandria, VA: Association for Curriculum Development, 1998); and The Paideia Seminar: Active Thinking Through Dialogue (Chapel Hill, NC: National Paideia Center, 2002).

6. These transformations are not surprising. See, for instance, Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America (1835-40; New York, NY: A.A. Knopf, 1945); and Jose Ortega y Gassett, The Revolt of the Masses (1930; New York, NY: W.W. Norton, 1960).

7. Michel Foucault, The Archaeology of Knowledge, trans. A. Sheridan Smith (1969; New York, NY: Harper and Row, 1972).