Book Review: How to Study History by Norman Cantor & Richard Schneider

Topic & Content

Published in 1967 and similar in subject (but not necessarily in content or presentation) to Conal Furay and Michael Salevouris’s The Methods and Skills of History, Norman Cantor and Richard Schneider’s How to Study History focuses on giving undergraduate students practical skills for the application of history with a specific focus on how to read, analyze, and write history. Unlike The Methods and Skills of History, Cantor and Schneider’s How to Study History doesn’t contain practical exercises in each chapter. Rather, its material is meant to be broadly applied to a college student’s overall reading and writing of history.

The book is organized as follows (I’ve included a brief description of the main topics covered in each chapter.):

  • 1. A Commitment to Excellence
    • Why studying history is important, what obligations a history student has to create good history, and some basic tips for studying.
  • 2. A Matter of Definition
    • What history is and what historians do.
  • 3. The Materials of History
    • The uses of primary and secondary sources.
  • 4. How to Use Primary Sources
    • Types of primary sources and how to effectively utilize them in research.
  • 5. How to Read Secondary Sources
    • Why secondary sources are useful, how to derive useful information from them, and how to quickly read them for their main points.
  • 6. A Practical Lesson in How to Read a History Book
    • How to analyze secondary sources for their main points to form a précis (i.e. an abstract) and three examples.
  • 7. Excursus on Auxiliary Disciplines
    • Practical study and note-taking techniques for undergraduate and graduate students who are studying history. Academic planning for undergraduate history degrees.
  • 8. Forms of Historical Communication
    • Why writing is important in history. Types of essays and book reviews.
  • 9. Shaping a Historical Essay
    • Doing research for essays, types of historical essays, rules for essay writing, and how to use historical proofs in your writing.
  • 10. Research Techniques
    • How to use a library to find various sources. How to take and organize notes.
  • 11. Historical Prose
    • Important points to consider when organizing and writing historical essays. Creating outlines, using footnotes and a bibliography. Common writing pitfalls.
  • 12. Two Student Papers Critically Examined
    • Analysis of a good (B+ grade) paper and a very mediocre (C- grade) paper.
  • 13. Historiography and the Philosophy of History
    • The development of history as a theoretical field, the schools of historical thought, and history’s relationship to the field of philosophy.

Thesis

The explicit purpose of this book is to provide practical advice to college undergraduates in their history courses and to help them maintain a pursuit of excellence in their study of history.

Author’s Background

The late Norman F. Cantor was a medieval historian who taught at Princeton, Columbia, Brandeis, and Binghamton Universities. He would later teach at the University of Illinois at Chicago and New York University. I’ve been unable to find any reliable information about Richard I. Schneider, apart from the fact that he had some affiliation with York University. It doesn’t help that there are a lot of Richard Schneiders in academia, but all with different middle names.

Critical Observations

Positives

The biggest positive of this book is that it focuses on a handful of fundamentals related to how to read and write history at the college level. Specifically, it examines techniques for analyzing a source for the thesis and main ideas, note-taking, developing a thesis, and writing an organized history essay with effective transitions and arguments. At times, it may seem like many of the reading and writing skills presented in this book are obvious and should be second-nature to any experienced student or historian, but the truth is that not every high school student or undergraduate student is explicitly taught how to use them. Indeed, the author’s note that they encounter many freshman undergraduates who were seemingly never taught the basics of historical research and writing. So before you dismiss this book as rehashing the blatantly obvious (As in, no duh! These are research 101 skills), remember that this book is specifically aimed at college undergraduates and potential history majors. As a teacher myself, I can’t even begin to tell you how many high school and middle school students I encounter who can’t even write a single coherent paragraph (sometimes even a sentence) without pulling their hair out or needing remedial attention. Then again, I’ve seen high school sophomores who have better writing abilities than some college seniors, but those types of students are pretty rare. I’ve seen students who span the whole spectrum from poor to mediocre to superb writers.

While this book didn’t drastically change my perspective or provide me with any revolutionary skills with regard to the subject of history, it did reiterate and reinforce some very important lessons. Speaking for myself as someone who actually paid attention in school and got good grades, it was still never really explained to me why it’s important for a history paper or a book to have a thesis, or why proper structure in a paper helps and engages the reader. I was simply told to do it and the rest of the time I was blindly memorizing facts. After reading this book, I feel that I’ve become so wrapped up in the technicalities, that I’ve lost sight of the big picture. What this book really did for me is highlight the fact that I’ve been getting too engrossed in my reading and research, but at the same time becoming grossly negligent in my historical writing.

On a side note: Looking back at a lot of the writing I’ve done for this blog, almost none of it has a thesis or a point to make. It’s largely a bland recitation of facts. While I probably won’t go back and revise every single post to make it “historiographically engaging,” I’ll at least try to cook up a thesis for some of the major ones. Of course, even that may be largely in vain because in the words of one of my professors, it’s a stupid idea to try and shoehorn in a thesis after the fact. I’m better off starting over from scratch and rewriting the entire thing according to them.

Anyway, back to the book itself.

Some of the better pieces of advice I found in this book include:

  • How to read and digest the main ideas of a history book quickly.
  • The importance of writing skills in history and how history is a form of communication.
  • Why it’s important that every paper or book have a thesis or a main point to make. The pure recitation of facts doesn’t make for very good or engaging history.
  • Not every paper or book you write will be original, but it will be personal to you and a reflection of your understanding of the material.
  • Don’t try to take lecture notes verbatim. Just get the major and unique points. (Recording and then listening to the lecture at a later time isn’t a very efficient use of time, either. You’re better off coming prepared and ready to learn from the start.)

It should be noted that a majority of this book is focused on how to read and write history from an academic standpoint. That being said, it’s not a book on the Chicago Manual of Style. If the reader wants to know about the technicalities of using footnotes and creating a well-cited historical essay/article, then they should reference the appropriate style guide.

One interesting thing that the authors note is that they place heavy emphasis on developing interpretation and explanation skills. They do this because they observe that most history courses in higher education emphasize the memorization of facts. Now it’s true that facts are important in history because “you cannot think unless you have something to think about” (p. 104). However, in contrast, they also opine that history is not merely the bland recitation of facts. A history paper or book that’s merely a bunch of facts is boring, and if it lacks a thesis or a main point, then it’s pointless and invalid. If all you’re doing is parroting the opinions of other historians, then you’re not proving anything nor adding anything original to the existing body of knowledge that’s already out there.

Perhaps one of the most important skills to take away from this book is that the authors implore historians and history students to actively be engaged in their learning. In other words, to develop an interpretation from primary sources and to seek out different perspectives from secondary sources rather than expecting the sources to give them the answer.

Negatives

Despite the age of this book, the vast majority of it holds up very well. The weakest (or most outdated) part of the book is probably the section on how to use a library card catalogue in conducting research and doing bibliographic searches. In the 21st century, it’s unlikely that you’ll have to thumb through a physical card catalogue at a library. This isn’t to say that the advice the authors give is useless, but merely a product of the times. Most libraries have digital catalogues and the internet has vastly increased the accessibility of various materials. What the authors write about paying attention to bibliographic information is still very applicable to the modern-day and can easily be adapted to digital library catalogues by the modern reader. It’s a very minor criticism to be making and one I won’t knock the authors for since they couldn’t have possibly known how far technology would’ve come.

Another criticism of the book is the discussion on applying psychology to the study of history. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with that, and to be fair, the authors do note that such a path is fraught with controversy. The issue here is that the authors discuss the application of Freudian psychoanalysis to historical figures. I would personally never take a historian’s word about the psychological profile of a historical figure, unless they were also an expert in the field of psychology, as well. Furthermore, perhaps we should be thankful that the field of psychology has advanced since Sigmund Freud’s time. Freud’s theories, while very influential to the field, have been heavily questioned with regard to their scientific validity and are probably of dubious value to a historian in the 21st century.

Again, these aforementioned criticisms are all related to the book’s publication in the 1960s. The fact that most of the advice still holds up well is a testament to its utility and timelessness.

My final criticism is that I found the ending of the book to be rather abrupt. The final chapter is merely a discussion on the study of historiography. In other words, how our study of history has changed with historical schools of thought over time and how history is related to philosophy. Despite the constant reminders throughout the book about why it’s important for a piece of writing to have good organization and a thesis, the book ironically has no concluding chapter to restate the main ideas and wrap things up. It just ends with the chapter on historiography.

Evaluation (Does the content support the thesis?)

While this book isn’t the most mind-blowing treatise on practical history skills, it does emphasize the importance of good writing and developing interpretation skills for the student of history. While geared towards undergraduates, its lessons could easily be adapted to lower grade levels.

Rating: 4 out of 5

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