Why might historians disagree about the same historical event?
To what extent does history change?
In the 6–8 cluster, History Standard Three introduces students to the concept that historical accounts of the same event may differ because historians have asked different questions of the same sources or because they have used the sources differently. Historical records just lie there. The factual information in them does not jump out without questions being asked. The questions help to determine the answers and therefore the conclusions. At this time, historians are not likely to discover a trunk full of new documents explaining the origins of the slave trade. But, two different historians can phrase their questions differently while investigating the early slave trade. The first may ask, “Why did Europeans begin enslaving Africans?” Seems like a straightforward question. The second may ask, “Why were Africans unable to prevent the slave trade?” This also seems like a straightforward question. Upon closer scrutiny neither one is.
The first rests upon the assumption that Europeans alone began the slave trade. Historical research does not support that. Africans sold Africans to the Europeans, who could not go far into the African interior because of their vulnerability to diseases. The second phrasing shifts the responsibility, although it is not clear how much, for the slave trade to Africans themselves rather than to Europeans. It also seems to suggest that the slave trade could have been prevented, if only Africans had wanted to prevent it. Each of these questions as guides to research will certainly lead to two very different books on the origins of the slave trade. Now comes the hard part for the student. Which sheds the most light on the subject, given the limited documents available? The well-armed student is aware that the phrasing of the questions underlying a research design influences the conclusions. After a few pages of a historical narrative, it is obvious usually where that historian’s methods and original questions will lead. Now the student can assess how persuasive the argument is while realizing it is that historian’s argument, and not the last word on the topic.