One of the most crucial aspects of understanding history is trying to see the past on its own terms. Too often students place modern values on top of the past and therefore fail to understand why people acted in the way they did. When speaking to students about the Holocaust, Primo Levi once noted that he increasingly faced the question: why did you not escape or rebel? These students are viewing History through their own modern lens of understanding rather than trying to engage with the strange world of the past. As Richard White notes: ‘Any good history begins in strangeness…the past should not be a familiar echo of the present…’ (White, 1998, p. 13). History exposes our inability to understand people in the past on their own terms. In order to do it well we need to try and understand the mentalities of those in the past. History helps us to practice understanding peoples we cannot hope to understand – this is a crucial lesson today (Wineburg, 1999).
1. There are major differences between modern WORLD-VIEWS and those of people in the past, this means their beliefs, values and motivations. We must avoid PRESENTISM.
2. The perspectives of HISTORICAL ACTORS are best understood by thinking about the CONTEXT in which people lived and the WORLD-VIEWS that influenced them.
3. Looking at the perspective of an HISTORICAL ACTOR means drawing INFERENCES about how people thought and felt in the past. It does not mean using modern WORLD-VIEWS to imagine the past.