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Interpretations in History


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#1 John Simkin

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Posted 14 March 2006 - 09:26 AM

It is sometimes thought that dealing with the issue of “interpretations” in the classroom is a comparatively new problem. Some date it back to the arrival of SHP history or the introduction of GCSE or the National Curriculum. I know when I started teaching in 1977 few history teachers thought “interpretation” was a problem. Most teachers claimed they were “objective” professionals who did not allow their own political opinions to influence their teaching.

The SHP was concerned about the possible exposure of the teacher’s political ideology while teaching the course and at first only sanctioned what they considered to be “safe” topics. Even a course unit on Nazi Germany was rejected because it was considered too “political”.

I became aware that “interpretation” was a problem once I began producing my own teaching materials. Given my own unhappiness with the quality of the commercial materials available in the 1970s, this happened straight away.

W.H.B. Court has pointed out: “History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon.” That has always been the case with my writing. Unless I have strong views on the subject, I don't bother to write about it.

The first materials I ever produced concerned the First World War. It was a subject I had felt passionately about for many years. In fact, I can date it to 1956, the year that I inherited from my father the brass medal type object that provided details of my grandfather’s death at the Battle of the Somme in 1916. My research into why he died did not give me a value-free view of the war.

These materials were about interpretations of the First World War. It of course included quotations from historians who were sympathetic to Sir Douglas Haig and other generals who followed the policy of “attrition”. It also included quotes from historians who were critical of this approach. For example, Llewellyn Woodward argued in his book “Great Britain and the War of 1914-1918 (1967): “Haig failed to comprehend that the policy of ‘attrition’ or in plain English, ‘killing Germans’ until the German army was worn down and exhausted, was not only wasteful and, intellectually, a confession of impotence; it was also extremely dangerous. The Germans might counter Haig's plan by allowing him to wear down his own army in a series of unsuccessful attacks against a skilful defence. Fortunately the enemy generals were of much the same 'textbook' type of mind as Haig.”

I quoted people like Duff Cooper who made a good job of defending people like Haig (the book was actually commissioned by the Haig family): "There are still those who argue that the Battle of the Somme should never have been fought and that the gains were not commensurate with the sacrifice. There exists no yardstick for the measurement of such events, there are no returns to prove whether life has been sold at its market value. There are some who from their manner of reasoning would appear to believe that no battle is worth fighting unless it produces an immediately decisive result which is as foolish as it would be to argue that in a prize fight no blow is worth delivering save the one that knocks the opponent out."

I also used extracts from Haig’s own defence of his tactics. But more importantly, I used extracts from those who had to endure Haig's orders. For example, William Brooks, who survived his time on the Western Front: “Haig's nickname was the butcher. He'd think nothing of sending thousands of men to certain death. The utter waste and disregard for human life and human suffering by the so-called educated classes who ran the country. What a wicked waste of life. I'd hate to be in their shoes when they face their Maker.”

Although on the surface my teaching materials appeared to be objective because they attempted to tell all sides of the story (this included David Lloyd George’s attempts in his memoirs to distance himself from the military tactics used on the Western Front) it was far from being objective history. In fact, it was my “interpretation” of the past. The selection of the primary sources by the author plays an important role in delivering your interpretation of past events. I am fully aware of the different ways that the student will react to different sources. For example, which one is the most convincing, a dry defence of Haig by Duff Cooper or a passionate attack on him by William Brooks?

I was guilty of using quotations against the people who made them. For example, here is what Sir Douglas Haig had to say about military tactics in a 1926 book review: “I believe that the value of the horse and the opportunity for the horse in the future are likely to be as great as ever. Aeroplanes and tanks are only accessories to the men and the horse, and I feel sure that as time goes on you will find just as much use for the horse - the well-bred horse - as you have ever done in the past.” It seems that Haig had learnt very little from his experience on the Western Front.

Hegel once said that: “Peoples and governments never have learned anything from history, or acted on principles deduced from it.” Maybe so, but I prefer to believe the comments of H. G. Wells: “Human history becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe”.

#2 Andy Walker

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 08:02 PM

The SHP was concerned about the possible exposure of the teacher’s political ideology while teaching the course and at first only sanctioned what they considered to be “safe” topics. Even a course unit on Nazi Germany was rejected because it was considered too “political”.


This discussion reminds me greatly of one on another forum a couple of years ago during the process of which I upset a number of rather vacuous right wing teachers who believed they were teaching in some sort of objective bubble remote and hypostatised from the social and political realities of their pupils and society.
I tend to see exposure of the teacher's political ideology in the classroom as an essential part of the learning rather than as a problem or a concern. I have no problem in admitting that I have an agenda in my classroom which informs both my topic choice and my teaching style. My long term aim is to give the students the skills to evaluate all interpretations and find their own way.
I think what upsets some about these processes is that the ideology which influences my activity in the classroom is not the dominant one. I want my students to grow up to be tolerant compassionate citizens with a social conscience. They wont do this if I simply tell them to. It can only be achieved if they are encouraged to question orthodoxy, challenge authoritarianism and to think critically and politically. You cannot instruct people to think independently and humanely, it is an attitude of mind which must be nurtured, questioned and encouraged.
The beauty of this approach is that if I have carried out my job well my students should be very well placed to either agree or disagree with me.
Education should after all be something which makes you singular.

#3 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 09:01 PM

W.H.B. Court has pointed out: “History free of all values cannot be written. Indeed, it is a concept almost impossible to understand, for men will scarcely take the trouble to inquire laboriously into something which they set no value upon.”


I absolutely agree. Like Andy, I was astonished to be involved in a debate about history teaching, or even teaching itself as being value free. The idea that our history classroom exists inside a bubble that has been vacuum cleaned of anything is naive to say the very least. I used to facetiously respond to the question 'why did you become a teacher' by saying that 'I became a teacher to corrupt innocent minds'. I was only half joking. Again, like Andy, my students are fully aware of my position on a number of different topics. They know, for example that I will not tolerate any forms of racism, sexism and homophobia in my classroom and that they will always be challenged to justify their opinions. I am happy to justify mine to anyone.

However, John, you asked about Interpretations in the history classroom, so I will return to that. I can honestly say that overtly I teach very little about interpretations of individuals or events. I can think of Cromwell
and Haig as examples of individuals and sometimes I look at Peterloo and ask students to explain why there are different interpretations of the same event. Why so little? pragmatic reasons I suppose, students find it difficult to understand (bit of a lame excuse there), I don't have too much material to use in the classroom and ideally I want to avoid the cliched hero/villain approach which I always feel is overly simplistic. I do often enjoy teaching about interpretations however as it really challenges students to use historical sources effectively and develop their writing. Maybe I need to do some more.

#4 Ed Podesta

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 09:28 PM

I'd like to post some ideas here, but I'm at risk of voiding a wonderful resource, i.e. your brains, if I do.

I'm carrying out some (small scale) research about what interpretations means to those who teach history.

If you don't mind, I'd be very grateful if some of the members of the board would answer a couple of questions on this matter, which should not take more than 10 mins?
I’ve got an idea that what I think interpretations means differs greatly from what my students think it means (if they think about it at all!).

I also have an idea that my professional peers have individual conceptions of that term and that I’d learn a lot from you, if you’d be kind enough to share your views with me.

Could you spare a couple of minutes to offer some thoughts on some or all of the following? I’d be forever grateful. I will be using your answers as the basis of some analysis for my PGDip in Teaching and Learning History. I may quote from what you say, but will obviously not reveal identities.

You can reply to this post if you wish, PM me, or email me any answers directly at

Edwardpodesta*googlemail.com (put an @ instead of the * to email me)

Thank you very much for your time in reading this post.

Ed Podesta

www.podesta.org.uk
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What questions do you ask of interpretations?

What are the problems or pitfalls that students seem to have when thinking about interpretations?

Why do we study interpretations?

What types of interpretations do you study with your students? Why do you use those types of interpretation?

Is it important to study different types of interpretations? Why?

How does the study of interpretations change through KS3 to KS5?

How can we secure progression in the study of ‘interpretations’?

If a student asked you “what do you mean by ‘interpretations’”?, what would your reply be?

#5 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 15 March 2006 - 09:48 PM

I tend to see exposure of the teacher's political ideology in the classroom as an essential part of the learning rather than as a problem or a concern. I have no problem in admitting that I have an agenda in my classroom which informs both my topic choice and my teaching style. My long term aim is to give the students the skills to evaluate all interpretations and find their own way.


I agree. But it seems this view would get us both sacked in the US. http://abcnews.go.co...tory?id=1679439

One of my students (an American) sent me the article this afternoon, she said 'I was angry about the way people in the united states accept this type of behaviour. When you hear people talk about it they agree with the teacher's suspension. I think it's outrageous that people don't realize what is happening to my country. We are slowly losing all our rights and I think that the suspension only confirms what he was saying....'

#6 Anders MacGregor-Thunell

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Posted 16 March 2006 - 07:31 AM

Most teachers claimed they were “objective” professionals who did not allow their own political opinions to influence their teaching.
The SHP was concerned about the possible exposure of the teacher’s political ideology while teaching the course and at first only sanctioned what they considered to be “safe” topics.


When I started teaching in the 1970's I had a very mixed experience here in Sweden. I met some history teachers who claimed the ability to be "objective" at the same time as I met the once conserned with a declared subjectivity. Some even went further and claimed the necessity of teaching history as a visible clear part of a political doctrine - the importance of educating the oppressed masses. This should be done at the same time you made sure you acknowledged which specific group/party you belonged to... :blink:
Personally I have always beleived in a declared subjectivity where you just as John described, show different interpretations of a specific event. It's very rewarding when students after some exercises questions the material you picked for them and even better when they find some other interpretations that might contradict what you just said.
Even if you don't get students to find other material as described above you at least get a student that can question whatever material that is used in the interpretations. This source criticism can develope into an understanding - we do choose the material that fit our philosophy (and ideology) of teaching. Everybody does - some aware of it others "unaware" (the "objective historians"). The "objective historian" is a much more dangerous teacher since he tries to hide his political views under an "objective cover". With this I claim the obvious thing - you can't teach history without influencing the topic.
When I taught in the US (1989-1990 and 1991-1993) I was inspired by the ability to meet and interact with a lot of very alert and curious youngsters. At the time I felt that most things could be questioned and debated and I never felt restricted by the Universities where I worked (in Austin, Texas 1989-1990 and in Portland, Oregon 1991-1993). There seems to have been a bit of change during the last years and I think it's very important to monitor the development in the US so the administration will not repeat the McCarthy mistakes... :ph34r:

Edited by Anders MacGregor-Thunell, 16 March 2006 - 07:36 AM.


#7 Nathaniel Heidenheimer

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Posted 18 March 2006 - 12:10 AM

One method I have found fun re: ideology in history is to "interogate" the NY State Regents Exam. There are two of these-- Global Studies,covering 9th and 10th grade content, and U.S. History and Government, covering the eleventh grade.

The students are socialized to see these tests as "objective knowledge." Their teacher, on the other hand, often resembles of middle aged clump of subjectivity with a bent metro card. It is fun to point out the ideology inherent in these questions, so that the students can understand that these questions are really not objective at all. Hence the test can itself be a tool to get the students to think more critically about what it means to be objective in history

Will give examples later on. Today there was one chalky contact lense between me and 'the youngsters themselves'

#8 Ed Waller

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Posted 18 March 2006 - 12:50 AM

It is likely that only those whose views echo the dominant ideology (to echo in my own turn Andy W's comment) believe there can be 'value free' history. This is primarily the result of their thinking NOT being at odds with the view of the world (and therefore of its history) that is received daily from a wide range of media.

The idea of an "objective" history is as absurd as "objective" politics. We all have our own ways of seeing the world and parts of it. Because it is impossible for the individual to know the entirety of what is known, out knowledge is imperfect, and we make up the gaps, so to speak, with our world view, our ideology, our interpretation.

History can be factually incorrect (WW2 didn't start in 1937, for example, and please don't begin a thrread that argues that one could argue for this year as a start date, however much fun such a debate might prove). Explanations (how we interpret the past) fall into a different kind of judgement from improbable to probable.

In my own teaching, I seldom present 'the answer' to a question that involves interpretation. I do 'admit' to having a preferred answer on some topics, which I hope I explain sufficiently well. Howvever I do stress that this is my view, and point the students to other points of view and request that they make up their own mind.

Last year for a particularly strong Yr 9 (13/14 y-olds) class, I offered them the chance to test one such theory/interpretation, and reminded them regularly that I wasn't too bothered if they disagreed or agreed, provided they supported their version with evidence. Naturally, some of them excelled at trying to disprove my thesis, or developing it further - honesty in this field can be liberating for all, and lead to some real Education (in both directions).

To refer to Richard's comment and to agree with his implicit argument on the potential of an approach to result in dismissal, it might be better to be dismissed than to be obliged to support the dominant ideology.

#9 Juan Carlos

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Posted 18 March 2006 - 10:24 AM

"Objective" history is out of question. Only conservative, naive and, why not to say it, quite unintelligent history teachers dare to claim that they are teaching "objective" history.
As a matter of fact, students become aware very soon of our ideology. I cannot teach one single day without conveying my political or social views.

However, one of the most important potentialities of learning history is getting to know that every event can be considered from different points of view, that every historical event can have different "interpretations".

I think that one of the few things I have learnt after teaching for more than twenty years is how to offer different interpretations of what happened.

I am interested in teaching how real people felt or thought of a historical situation while it was occurring and how historical interpretations are elaborated later to justify the different attitudes adopted in the past.

Another point I like to stress in my classes is how our contemporary point of view makes change our interpretation of the past. Every history curriculum tries to underpin a certain view about our current society.

#10 John Simkin

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Posted 22 March 2006 - 06:29 PM

With the release of Good Night, and Good Luck, it might be worth considering an interpretation exercise of McCarthyism.

See for example:

http://educationforu...?showtopic=6401

#11 John Simkin

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Posted 23 March 2006 - 10:58 AM

Tamas Krausz is professor of history at Elte University, Budapest. Here is an interesting account of how history is constantly being re-interpreted. As Thomas Buckle once said: “There will always be a connection between the way in which men contemplate the past and the way in which they contemplate the present.”

http://educationforu...?showtopic=6408

#12 David Richardson

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Posted 23 March 2006 - 12:57 PM

I'm not a historian, but I have a story to contribute to the Haig discussion.

When I was teaching in Dartford, every November there'd be someone coming round to sell poppies (small paper and plastic flowers sold to raise money for veterans on the occasion of Armistice Day, November 11 - for the benefit of any non-UK readers). I never bought one or wore one, and the pupils would always ask why. I'd tell them to come in their time (i.e. the break), rather than taking up my lesson time, and some of them always would.

I'd point out the words 'Haig Fund' in the middle of the poppy and give them my interpretation of what happened in World War 1 (my grandad was in the Royal Enniskillen Fusiliers, an Irish regiment which - completely coincidentally - found itself in the front line of just about every major battle in World War 1, starting with Gallipoli). I'd also tell them that veterans ought to be helped out of general taxation, rather than having to rely on charity, since they were wounded in the service of society as a whole (at least ostensibly). Making their aid into a charitable event both helps to conceal a lot of truths about how and why they were hurt, and helps society as a whole evade its responsibility for actions and decisions governments take.

In three years I never had any trouble at all either getting my pupils to understand what I was talking about, or avoiding any allegations that I was behaving unethically as a teacher (there weren't any allegations like that at all, actually).

#13 Andy Walker

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Posted 25 March 2006 - 12:05 PM

The Haig example is an interesting one, and one which leads us potentially towards a view that some "interpretations" may be more valid than others. Especially those interpretations which have their basis in sound and rigorous academic research.

It has become fashionable to believe that all interpretations are equal these days but down this path surely and inevitably lies such idiocy as schools being forced to teach Creationism along side Darwinism in Science lessons (both being seen as "valid interpretations") as we are already seeing in the wackier areas of the United States. The possible outcomes of such trends are extremely alarming.

Critical thought is not the same as the wholesale denial of science and knowledge.

In teaching school children about interpretations in history it is very important to help them understand how and why different views of the same event(s) may be formed. It would be a dereliction of duty however to encourage them to think that all interpretations are equal.

#14 John Simkin

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Posted 25 March 2006 - 02:23 PM

The Haig example is an interesting one, and one which leads us potentially towards a view that some "interpretations" may be more valid than others. Especially those interpretations which have their basis in sound and rigorous academic research.

It has become fashionable to believe that all interpretations are equal these days but down this path surely and inevitably lies such idiocy as schools being forced to teach Creationism along side Darwinism in Science lessons (both being seen as "valid interpretations") as we are already seeing in the wackier areas of the United States. The possible outcomes of such trends are extremely alarming.

Critical thought is not the same as the wholesale denial of science and knowledge.

In teaching school children about interpretations in history it is very important to help them understand how and why different views of the same event(s) may be formed. It would be a dereliction of duty however to encourage them to think that all interpretations are equal.


This is a very important point. Modern textbooks often provide different interpretations of past events. However, these are usually weighted to make sure that the "official" interpretation is seen as the "right" one.

This is often the case with a subject like slavery. As a result, the interpretation is that that suggests that the end of slavery was as a result of a moral crusade led by a small group of white religious leaders such as William Wilberforce. Children are rarely told about the economic reasons for the end of slavery.

See this thread where I will develop this idea.

http://educationforu...?showtopic=5954

#15 Andy Walker

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Posted 25 March 2006 - 02:49 PM

This is a very important point. Modern textbooks often provide different interpretations of past events. However, these are usually weighted to make sure that the "official" interpretation is seen as the "right" one.

http://educationforu...?showtopic=5954


There is some truth in this. Less so in the last 10 years but it is still there in some controversial issues like the one John cites.
However it is the sort of argument that characterises teachers as passive receivers and then deliverers of what the textbook tells them. I believe it would be very hard to teach history effectively (especially understanding interpretations of history) with such a mindset.




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