Level Two and Beyond: Exploring Key Ideas Within Disciplines, Part Two
- State the meaning of the concept in one simple sentence. History is the development of “stories” or accounts of the past with the purpose of understanding how and why things happened, and how we can use that understanding to live better in the present and future.
- State the significance of the idea to the discipline. Understanding the concept of history is vital to one’s ability to think historically, to think like a historian. When we think about the nature of historical thinking, we discover that it is, by necessity, highly selective. For example, during any given historical period, even one as short as a day, millions of events take place, forcing those who would give an account of “yesterday” to leave out most of what actually happened. No given written history contains anything more than a tiny percentage of the total events that took place within the studied historical period. Historians therefore must regularly make value judgments to decide what to include and exclude from their accounts. The result is that there are different possible stories and accounts that highlight different patterns in the events themselves. One historian focuses on great and influential politicians and military figures, another on great ideas and artists, another on technology and its development, another on the role of economics, and another tries to say a little about each of these historical points of view. Because history is always told from some perspective, and every perspective is not equally sound, historical accounts are not necessarily of the same quality. Some historical accounts more accurately represent past events and provide more reasonable interpretations of those events.
- Give an example of the concept (as it applies to real life). To think historically is to begin to connect history to everyday life. For example, all humans create their own story in the privacy of their minds. This is a form of historical thinking. By recognizing this, we can begin to analyze how we tell the story of our life. We can seek to determine the extent to which we accurately portray events in our past by listening to the historical accounts of our lives given by others. We might find that we are avoiding the truth about some part of our behavior. We might learn from the perspectives of others.
- Give an analogy or metaphor of the concept to link the concept to similar ideas in other domains. We might compare history to novels. Just as history focuses on giving an account of the past, all novels are set in some time and place and give some account of what it was to live at that time in that place. Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn gives us an account of life along the Mississippi River in the nineteenth century. Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol gives us an account of what life was like for the rich and poor in London in the mid-nineteenth century. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath gives us an account of the social dislocation of poor farmers (and of the indifference of large industry to private suffering) in the American states suffering from drought in the 1930s. Both history and novels usually include the character, decisions, and actions of people. Implications of decisions and/or events are usually highlighted in both.
- Connect the idea to other important ideas within the same domain of thought. The idea of history is related to the ideas of time, change, growth, progress, conflict, revolution, evolution, permanence, sociocentrism, social conventions, vested interest, and power. To understand history, one must understand how it is connected to the human search to find meaning in life. The past is the key to the present and the future. In it we can find success and failure, waste and war, triumph and suffering, the beginnings of things, their growth and transformations, and their endings.
- Give examples. History reveals short-term and long-term patterns. In history we find civilizations that last a hundred or thousands of years. We see the omnipresence of war and suffering. We see the powerful nations dominating the weak nations. We see some groups of people (the technologically advanced) virtually eliminating other groups — as in the domination of European peoples in conquering the Americas.
- State the meaning of the concept in one simple sentence. Biology is the scientific study of all life forms. Its basic goal is to understand how life forms work, including the fundamental processes and ingredients of all life forms.
- State the significance of the idea to the discipline. Once one understands the basic idea of a life form, one is ready to understand the common denominators between the 10 million species of living things that exist in the world today. For example, all life forms, no matter how diverse, have the following common characteristics: (1) they are made up of cells, enclosed by a membrane that main- tains internal conditions different from their surroundings; (2) they contain DNA or RNA as the material that carries their master plan; and (3) they carry out a process, called metabolism, which involves the conversion of different forms of energy through predictable chemical reactions.
- Give an example of the concept (as it applies to real life). To think biologically is to see the world as divided into living and non-living matter. It is to see all living things as part of complicated ecosystems. Thinking biologically, you also see living things in terms of the concepts of structure and function. Wherever there is life, you look for it to be structured in specific ways, and you look for all structures to have a function in that living thing.
- Give an analogy or metaphor of the concept to link the concept to similar ideas in other domains. The notion of living things existing in systems, both internal and external, is similar to the way in which non-living matter exists in physical systems. Looking for “systems” is a hallmark of all science, not just of biology. For example, all chemists see the world as made up of atoms that can cluster together in discoverable structural patterns. Furthermore, they see these patterns as making possible transformations of substances from one state to another. Take one kind of chemical substance and mix it with or expose it to another kind of chemi- cal substance and you may get a chemical reaction resulting in one or more new chemical substances.
- Connect the idea to other important ideas within the same domain of thought. The idea of life forms is connected with the ideas of the structures that exist at different levels of life (from the smallest to the largest); for example, life at the level of chemical molecules, at the level of organelles, at the level of cell, tissue, organ, organism, population, ecological community, and biosphere.
- Give examples. History reveals short-term and long-term patterns. Biologists can study the role of specific molecules in the structure of organelles, or the role of organelles in the structure of cells, or the role of cells in the structure of tissues, or the role of tissues in the structure of organs, or the role of organs in the structure of organisms, and so forth. Each level of life has a specific relationship to all the others. This multi-system nature makes possible the linking of all sciences together into a massive system of systems.
Now it is your turn to practice. Focus on any key concepts within a discipline and use the pattern just modeled to write substantively about them. Use good dictionaries, encyclopedias, and/or textbooks as references. Remember, there is no single correct answer for this process. The question is: Does writing about this key concept help you gain insight into important dimensions of the powerful ways of thinking that all disciplines and subjects make possible?