HISTORY STANDARD THREE: Students will interpret historical data [Interpretation].
Enduring Understandings (K-12):
What is written by a historian depends upon that historian’s personal background and methods, the questions asked about the sources, and the sources used to find the answers to those questions.
Historians select important events from the past they consider worthy of being taught to the next generation. That selection process, deciding what to emphasize, and the questions that historians ask of the documents and other evidence contributes significantly to the conclusions drawn.
History is what the historian says it is. Different historians collect, use, and emphasize sources in ways that result in differing interpretations as they describe, compare, and interpret historical phenomena. Disagreement between historians about the causes and effects of historical events may result from these differences.
As students mature intellectually, they begin to learn that not everything is true because it appears in a book, on television, or online. Students come to realize that history can be presented from different perspectives. The existence of different viewpoints makes history a lively field. A historian gathers factual information from all kinds of sources and weaves it into a story, a narrative. Along the way, the historian decides what to emphasize, what to minimize, and what is significant. The reader goes along for the ride. But a savvy reader should understand that the historian is giving his/her definitions of significance and emphasis based on their beliefs, their judgment, and their interests. Sometimes interpretation creeps into the narrative and sometimes it roars into the narrative. The latter is obvious; the former is often overlooked. Anyone reading a historical narrative needs to be alert for the author’s interpretations, both large and small. It will be there—it always is.
History Standard Three uses three concepts that are often confusing to non-historians—beliefs, perspectives, and point of view. All of them ask for information describing the historian who argues an interpretation. At the higher grades, a student is expected to differentiate between two interpretations and to come to some conclusion as to why they differ. Someone once said that any relationship is really five relationships. There is how you look at it, how I look at it, how I think you look at it, how you think I look at it, and then how it really is. What lies behind differing interpretations is complicated.
A point of view is not a viewpoint expressed by a historian—that is a simplistic, popular definition. A point of view is not just any person’s way of looking at something. A point of view, as used in the study of history by professional historians, asks such questions as: Where is this historian coming from? What are the historian’s nationality, race, gender, age, and personal background? Could any of these factors have played a role influencing that historian’s conclusions or the questions that guided that historian’s research strategy? Is the historian a young African-American female writing about the role of women in the civil rights movement? Or, is that historian an elderly white male Southerner with deep family roots in the antebellum South writing about the role of women in the civil rights movement? An Arabic historian would certainly write a history of the Crusades that differed from one written by a Western European historian (assuming he or she is not of Arabic descent). Each historian selects events from past experiences that he or she labels as important and therefore worthy of being taught to the next generation. That selection process, deciding what to emphasize, and the questions that historian asks of the documents and other evidence contributes significantly to the conclusions drawn. If two historians disagree, they do not have two different points of view. You would reasonably expect that these factors—race, age, gender, and personal background—would influence a person as they grow to intellectual maturity and therefore would influence their research interests, methods, and strategies. It makes a difference.
Or does it? Sometimes a person’s beliefs simply do not seem to fit into the mold from which they supposedly came. A wealthy capitalist of the late nineteenth century would reasonably be expected to enthusiastically support the drive for markets and raw materials associated with the acquisition of colonies, such as the Philippines after the Spanish American War. Andrew Carnegie opposed it. We can never know for certain what is inside a person’s head. What ideas and understandings are floating around in there? A person’s beliefs usually are philosophically consistent but not always. We all know people whose political beliefs are consistently liberal or conservative, except on one issue. What does that historian believe? And why do they believe it? And how does it impact their research and writing?
Perspective is the platform upon which a historian stands. Is the historian a Southerner writing about slavery or a former slave, such as Frederick Douglass, writing about slavery? A few years ago, Japanese and American historians formed a committee to write a joint history of the coming of the Second World War. After a while they gave up because nationalism overrode professional devotion to objectivity. Many Americans who lived through the 1960s were permanently affected by those turbulent times. Some now hold important corporate, academic, and political positions while retaining vestiges of the radical ideas (for the 1960s) they personally experienced and lived through. When a person lives and writes matters. Germans use an untranslatable word to describe this: Zeitgeist. The closest we can get is “time-ghost.” What was in the air at that time? What was the climate of opinion? What were people thinking? A book attacking big businessmen as mean, nasty thieves or “Robber Barons” became immensely popular when it was published in 1934, in the middle of our worst depression. A similar reception would not have happened if it had been published during the Second World War, when we needed all of our big business muscle to win the war. Perspective asks students to recognize and confront the possibility that the times could have influenced the writing of history.
Standard Three deals with what historians do—what influences them, what difficulties they encounter, and how historians look at what other historians write. Two different people may honestly disagree about some event that has already happened. The facts are clear. The team lost the game. Now the interpretation arrives. Did the team lose the game because of a weak defense or because of a weak offense? A policeman investigating an accident wants to know all he or she can learn about the drivers, the road conditions, the mechanical status of the cars, whether seatbelts were worn, the weather conditions, the presence of alcohol, and now, sadly, road rage. Historians function in a similar manner.
What are often believed to be every day, easily defined words instead have specific meaning to practitioners of that academic discipline. Two terms that may cause trouble are “historic” and “historical.” Historic means important or well known in history. A historic account is an event in history that is worth remembering. The standards use “historical” and the phrase “historical accounts.” This is not the same as a “historic account.” Historical means relating to or connected with history as a discipline or events in history as a historian deals with them. A historical narrative is a history-based story, and not just any old story. A narrative is not simply a story; as the standards use the term it is a historian’s written account.
Comparing two different accounts of the same event involves skills that a student should internalize in order to be able to apply them as a citizen every time he or she encounters a written account about current events or historical events. Teachers should bear that purpose in mind when constructing a lesson plan for a topic.
At the higher level for Standard Three, it is not just that history is interpretation. It is how a student can discover for himself that history is interpretation by assessing a historian’s choice of questions, his or her choice of sources, his or her point of view, etc. It is not whatis the point of view, but how does a narrative show a point of view. Students are not expected to become knowledgeable about historiography, which is the study by professional historians of how different historians’ interpretations conflict with one another. Standard Three is not an exercise in historiography. Standard Three does not measure, ask for, or expect this level of knowledge but just an awareness that historians sometimes disagree and the reasons why they disagree. The key question is, “What factors contributed to this historian’s conclusion and how did these factors contribute to this historian’s conclusions?” It is the process—not the end conclusion—measured in Standard Three. The following illustrates history as interpretation.
No student of history can possibly be absolutely neutral evaluating a historical event. Even professional historians bring values and moral judgments to their investigation of a topic in history. Students need to be alert to pre-existing factors that mold and shape the writing of history. Sometimes bias is obvious in the questions posed. Consider these questions:
Why did the United States drop the atomic bomb on innocent, unsuspecting civilians at Hiroshima on August 6, 1945?
Why did the United States choose to drop the atomic bomb?
Would the United States have used the atomic bomb on a white nation like Germany if it had been developed earlier?
Statement “a” implies that the atomic bomb should have been used only on a military target. This comment might have struck a more responsive chord in the generation that lived in the 1940s because people could remember the years prior to the Second World War when no city had been bombed from the air. Behind this wording is the assumption that using the atomic bomb was a mistake. The historian researching this question focuses on the target decision-making process. How and why did the city of Hiroshima come to be the first atomic victim? Could the United States have merely demonstrated the bomb for Japanese observers? Teachers might ask students how the questions a historian asks reveal or reflect the historian’s point of view or potential bias.
Statement “b” suggests that there were alternative policies, other than the bomb, which could have been selected. It raises a question by inference. What were those alternative policies and why were they rejected, if they were even considered at all? Historians writing during the Cold War lived with the daily threat of atomic annihilation. Some historians felt that the atomic bomb ushered in a new era in the world’s history, a dangerous era. They regretted its initial use. These historians sometimes assume that it was unnecessary to drop the atomic bomb because victory was easily within our grasp. Or was it? Do we know how much longer the war could have gone on? What did American decision-makers know and when did they know it? Historians call the “what if” judgments “counterfactual history.”3 It is great fun to rewrite history for a different ending, but can we be sure?
Statement “c” approaches history from what is sometimes called “a grand theory.” This historian apparently believes that race so dominates history that behind every decision must be a racial basis. In the Second World War, the United States acted out of racial motives, as it always does, according to this perspective.
History Standard Three takes students through a process by which they come to realize that ultimately all history is what the historian says it is. What is written about and what is remembered is passed on to the next generation. One constant dispute involving the teaching of history is the criticism by some of the public that the wrong content is being taught. This assumes that there is a body of knowledge that all might agree upon. It is not so. The same event can be presented from many different perspectives. Certainly the American Revolution must be viewed differently in a British textbook. If current events are depicted differently in different newscasts and newspapers, then surely this was done in the past and surely it will continue in the future.
When this standard is fully mastered, a student is ready to apply it in his or her daily adult life as a citizen by being aware that all written accounts flow from a person who sat down to write that account and brought with him or her a collection of personal influences and perspectives. Nothing is absolutely neutral. Students must have an understanding of how a historian goes about writing. An awareness of this process arms students when they encounter what others write. This skill and awareness is essential for future citizenship.
History Standard Three 6-8a: Students will compare different historians’ descriptions of the same societies in order to examine how the choice of questions and use of sources may affect their conclusions.