BOX 3-3
Did People Think Like Us in the Past?

A major step for young students of history is to recognize that they cannot rely on our modern ways of thinking to explain why people in the past acted as they did.

In action research in U.K. schools carried out by Dickinson and Lee and by Ashby and Lee, groups of three students in grades 5 to 8 were asked to explain why the Anglo-Saxons used the ordeal to find out whether someone was guilty or innocent of a crime.8 Their discussions were recorded on videotape.

Some students dismissed the ordeal as absurd, but others tried to make sense of it by turning it from a form of trial into a method of punishment aimed at deterrence. Their reaction was that, given any reasonable—i.e., modern—ideas and values, it could not have been a trial, so it must have been something else. If it was so deliberately unfair (by our standards), then it must have been doing what we would do if we behaved like that. As one group of eighth graders said, “If this is as unfair as we seem to make out it is, no one’s going to steal anything,” because they will be “scared they’ll get caught.” Students thinking like this cease to think of the ordeal as part of a trial, and reduce it to a form of deterrent. Some students slip into calling the ordeal a “punishment.”

Another move made by students is to recognize that the Anglo-Saxons held different religious beliefs from ours, but then to treat this as part of the problem: the ordeal is the sort of absurd thing you would expect from their religion.

A few eighth graders, however, not only were able to use the different ideas held by the Anglo-Saxons to explain why the ordeal took the form it did, but were even prepared to switch perspective to judge present institutions in what they thought of as Anglo-Saxon terms.


They’d probably say that their system then, with God, is better than ours, because, well people can muck around with the truth, but God …


But God doesn’t.


They’d probably say theirs was better than ours.


They might have even thought that God was punishing the Indians because the Indians weren’t very religious.


Weren’t they, they had Gods, other Gods, didn’t they?


Yes, they had statues and things, totem poles and things?

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