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A Look into the First Day of this Professor's History Class


I have students read an excerpt from Thomas Haskell, and we discuss that and establish some ethical expectations for ourselves as part of a community of inquiry. I ask them how we can know what we know about the past, and how we can know that historians who are telling us something about the past are getting it right, or at least right enough.  And we talk about that, using some of my favorite ten-dollar words (when I was a kid, we called these “50 cent words,” but I don’t think that would sound like a lot to college students today):  epistemology, nomothetic, idiographic, forensic.

I usually choose chemistry as the nomothetic discipline under discussion, because it is a lab science that many students have had some experience with in junior high or high school or college. We talk about what students are expected to learn when they do lab experiments, and what they’re not expected to learn.  They usually volunteer that they are expected to learn technique, or to demonstrate “the laws” of the discipline they’re studying, “how chemistry works,” and so forth.

“Wait,” I say, “doesn’t anyone expect you to discover a new element in the periodic table in your high school chemistry class?” They laugh.  Then I say, “Well, what is the point of calling it an experiment then, if it is something that has been done before by someone else?” The students always come up with good reasons for doing labs, and I sum up their reasons thus:  the point of the experiments is to learn how knowledge in the field of chemistry is generated, verified, demonstrated, and communicated.  With every lab there is a lab report:  the materials you used, the conditions under which you ran the experiment, the steps you took, the results you got, an explanation of the results.  All of this may communicate new knowledge to the student, but it also communicates a way of knowing and a procedure for verifying what someone else says they know.


Read entire article at Society for Intellectual History Blog