Proposal for a new Web platform: checkthetext.org
History education is at a crossroads, and DBQs are quite the rage. Teachers are hungry for innovative, document-based lessons to line up with Common Core. Some programs exist, but they are often too complex to fit within time-constrained curricula. Further, in the rush for DBQs, we need to take care that we are not doing more harm than good. Asking students to form hasty conclusions on the bases of scanty evidence does not encourage historical thinking. (See below for “historical thinking.”)
Here’s what checkthetext.org can do:
What we need to pull this off:
An organization, consortium, or educational institution with which to affiliate
An interactive web platform
Historians in various fields and educators at different levels to contribute material
Five steps toward historical thinking, with ideas for how each can be promoted in the classroom:
1. We don’t know the past. As historian Richard White puts it, “Any good history begins in strangeness. The past should not be comfortable. The past should not be a familiar echo of the present.” Because of differences in time, circumstance, and perspective, we can never create a one-to-one correspondence between the actual past and the narrative we use to represent it.
This is not a difficult lesson to convey. In fifth grade, or even earlier, a teacher can arrange to video some event the students all witness or experience. A month or two later, students are asked some very specific questions about this event, such as how many people there were, the exact time, and so on. Responses will likely differ, but which of the answers are wrong and which correct? The video is played back, a contemporaneous answer book, and students learn that memory plays tricks with history. Then comes the kicker. A month or two after another shared event, students are asked to respond once again to specific questions. This time, though, there is no video to determine who is correct. What to do now? What sorts of contemporaneous documents might we look to for answers? Did anybody keep a journal at that moment? Interview participants? Issue reports at the time? Welcome to history.
2. While no constructed narrative can claim to be “true,” some are clearly better than others. The most we can expect from a story is that it conforms to the available evidence from the times. We observe the past through spotty remnants. While these will never tell the whole story, they can shape its parameters.
Again, this is easily taught even at the elementary level. Lay out some facts, then weave two or more narratives around those facts. To make one story interesting, bend a fact or two. Weave another narrative, perhaps more mundane, that conforms to all the facts presented. Then weave a third story that also conforms to the facts. Students will see that one story is demonstrably wrong, even if they can’t say for sure that either of the others is a true representation of what actually happened.
3. Things might have happened differently. Humans are historical agents. They make decisions and take actions, not fully knowing how things would turn out. To grasp this, we need to disregard all that has occurred since and view matters in light of the circumstances at a specific point in time, using only the information available to people then as they pondered their options and tugged with each other to produce desired outcomes. Our past was their present. Before it was history it was life in the moment, one thing after the next, the future uncertain.
Simulated debates can demonstrate that historical outcomes are not fixed. People do make decisions, they act one way or another. Debating any hot topic from the past, with time and circumstance clearly established and all arguments based on later happenings strictly banned, will reveal the contingency if history.
4. Things didn’t happen differently. They happened the way they happened. After we come to realize that multiple options were possible, we need to go one step farther and ask, “Why wasn’t it otherwise?” If we don’t pose this question, history will remain incomprehensible. The political processes that steered history on the course it took need to viewed carefully and in sequence – history happened when it happened. We need to see how decisions made and actions taken, day-by-day, influenced subsequent events, leading to new sets of contingencies and opening some options while closing others. We watch history unfold, not in real time but as closely to it as we can.
Here, unfortunately, there are no quick-and-easy methods. Teachers and students, authors and readers, have no choice but to engage each subject on its own terms. Here is the daily grind of history, and it requires scrutiny and patience. Since sequencing is key, all events must be viewed strictly in the context of when they happened. If we try to short-circuit time to prove some point, we will likely get the story wrong.
5. Historical inquiry never ceases. New evidence, or new perspectives on old evidence, can produce new insights and new conclusions. Part and parcel of every document-based lesson should be: “What related questions might we ask to clarify matters? What other types of sources might we seek to deepen our inquiry and/or test our hypotheses?” Historical thinking is not limited to answering questions; we must also learn to ask questions that might reveal what has been hidden.