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Interpretations - Misunderstod skill?

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#31 John Simkin

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 12:40 PM

I have just found an interesting website called Images of Custer. The author introduces the material with the words:

"All history is contemporary. One of the most famous moments in American history, Custer’s Last Stand, provides compelling evidence for this idea. From the moment the battle ended at the Little Big Horn, historians and poets began to retell the story for their own purposes. It is fascinating to see how the images of Custer and his Last Stand have radically changed in the last century, not because of any new historical information, but because of the contradictory needs of our national psyche. At first, Custer’s Last Stand represented the struggle of Western civilization over savagery. After the Depression, writers portrayed Custer as a rampant egomaniac. During World War II, the Last Stand was an example of courage and self-sacrifice. Since the 1960’s the Last Stand has been seen as just retribution for America’s crimes against Native Americans."

The website actually started out as a research paper for the history class in a school in the United States.


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Posted 02 November 2003 - 01:50 PM

I have to say that having only recently come to look at this thread I am hugely impressed by the quality of the discourse .
If we assert that all history is contemporary and that official or hegemonic interpretation is at best a selective editing of "facts" and at worst lies written by the dominant group in society for propagandistic social and political purposes, then some rather fundamental issues are raised as to the role of the State employed history teacher in the generation of hegemony and resistance..... and at this point the forum will be returning to some rather old ground ;)

#33 Richard Drew

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 08:04 PM

Andy is right to point out that the seminar has begun to suggest that it might stray into some old ground that is not necessary to repeat. rather than that, the seminar is intended to discuss how the skill of recognising, describing, explaining and evaluating is developed by pupils, and why this skill is not always taught as well as it should be.

John's point about Custer is interesting , in that it helps pupils to understand that different historical interpretations are generated and suggests reasons why. althoug hrather than referring to 'official' interpretations i think it helps to explain why 'popular myths' are generated and changed over time.
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#34 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 08:34 PM

Many years ago Keith Jenkins attended a seminar I gave at the national History Workshop Conference. The seminar was about teaching the School History Project. He gave me a rough time. When I could understand what he was saying, he appeared to be arguing that the process of being a historian was so complex that it should be left out of the classroom. I argued against him but I concede he was making an important point. I sometimes fear we have created a false impression of what a historian does. Putting a collection of sources together for students to work with so that teachers can tick boxes and record the level of attainment they have received is very disturbing (see Andy Walker’s new seminar on assessment for this). You are of course right that the examination system is part of the problem. However, the training of history teachers is another. How many history teachers are in fact aware that this is actually a problem?

I don't think it is just a problem with the training of teachers, but with what history graduates bring to their training. Apart from a couple of weeks on the 1960s Carr v Elton debate at the beginning of the course, most university history undergraduates still get little chance to consider the epistemological foundation of their subject.

To quote myself from the IB thread, quoting myself from July 2000:

Generally, there appears to be no attempt to move beyond a narrow, rather Rankean empiricism with its fetishist obsession with the “documents”. Spend ten minutes examining two sources and comment on their reliability. Confronted with such a question, I have often been tempted to ask “why?” What are we as teachers hoping to achieve? Are we hoping to imitate what real historians do or is it some sort of elaborate IQ test that has little to do with history? At an IB conference I attended the senior examiner seemed to delight in revealing that students could expect to achieve up to 17 or so marks out of the 20 available without having to know much of the historical context at all! I suspect, therefore, that quite a bit of IB History teaching time must be dedicated to teaching the “skills of source analysis” or as I prefer to see it, learning to jump through the very contrived and intellectually restricted hoops, in a limited amount of time.

Where did the idea of a document paper come from? I suspect it had something to do with developments in Britain. The Schools Council History Project in the 1970s and the GCSE in the 1980s attempted to address the perceived crisis in History teaching (a subject identified by students as boring and difficult) by reducing the assessment (and therefore teaching emphasis) on content recall and essay writing (or the boring and difficult). As John Slater once put it: “Skills – did we even use the word? – were mainly those of recalling accepted facts about famous dead Englishmen, and communicated in a very eccentric literary form, the examination length essay”. It was almost inevitable after its introduction at GCSE that document work would find its way into the A Level, as it universally had done by the end of the 1980s. When exactly did it make it into the IB? Perhaps IB was the innovator? Either way, the document paper is like the essay, a very eccentric intellectual form.

But it is not really the artifice or eccentricity that bugs me; it is the fact that methodologically it ignores intellectual developments in the social sciences over the last 30 years. A student doing IB History need never have to consider the implications for History of the work of Foucault, Derrida, Lyotard, Rorty et al. Yes, I know history was slow to adjust; historians have always had a healthy scepticism of abstract ideas. But for goodness sake, there will be people teaching IB History this year who were not even born when Hayden White’s Metahistory was first published (1973). It is now nearly ten years since Keith Jenkins began his campaign to bring post-modernism to the historian masses (Re-thinking History 1991) and now there is even an Access to History textbook for Advanced Level students that takes up the challenge. (History and the Historians, John Warren) As this last text recognises, although as historians we may not accept the arguments of the post-modernists who attempt to undermine our theoretical foundations, we cannot afford to ignore them either.
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#35 D Letouzey

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Posted 03 November 2003 - 09:02 PM

what opportunities are there to examine the differing 'official text' as
interpretations in themselves

2 differents answers :
- When official programs change, teachers are asked to give their opinion ;
several lobbies may intervene in this " democratic " procedure. In history, a 1992 version was rejected, a 2002 version had to be rewritten after this consultation.

- " Les documents d'accompagnement " give of course an official reading of this curriculum.
Have a look to our new ones: http://eduscol.education.fr/D1012/
They may also benefit from changes in historical theory and in didactic.
There are several groups of teachers : one group may participate to long debates about the concepts being chosen (either the wording, or the meaning) ;
another group may keep distance, and spend more time on adapting them to their own view of history, their own professional culture, and the pupils in
their schools.
Of course, all this is usually used as material for university works, for higher education conferences, for teeachers' debates .

Richard 's references to historical films are very useful.
When I use Kubrick 's Paths of glory ( few minutes), I highlight the reconstitution of the trenches, or the effect of military justice. But also for the context of the film: it has been forbidden from 1957 to 1974 in France. The pupils can, after that, know how to differentiate history and cinema, compare american or french views on WW1...

Spielberg 's views on WW2 could be also analysed (Schindler 's list, Saving Private Ryan.).

Vichy propaganda is also a sensible issue.
There are some very good documentary (Chabrol 's "L'oeil de Vichy").
Of course, pupils know how WW2 finished, and they know that Petain or Laval have been sentenced in 1945.
But this propaganda is strong enough to mislead those who want to ignore or to forget history.
It is always necessary to oppose this propaganda and the facts from a democratic view.

History teaching, theory, pedagogy :

Geographers, in higher education, have also shown how teachers try to build simple school exercises (exercices scolaires), which can be quickly evaluated. Since 1997, in lycée, we teach to draw sketch maps. As a joke, I say that if in a pupil s’work, Hokkaido is colored in green, then I know which textbook the student has used.

France has had the same evolution toward the document's rule, and toward formalism. But we all know that an historical document is " une auberge espagnole " : we found in it only what we know of the subject, and of its context.

All the issues raised by Richard are commonly debated in France amongst geographers.
In fact, the danger of a conceptual teaching is to lose some pupils on the way. When I was a student, we could read papers from Ecole des Annales on Wars in the Middle Ages, but because we knew Poitiers or Azincourt, The Black Prince or Joan of Arc. In France, now, most of the students we have lack these very basis, because we have chosen to teach other subjects, and surely a different interpretation of history.

#36 Richard Drew

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Posted 03 November 2003 - 10:12 PM

thanks very much for another fascinating insight Daniel.

your points about spielberg and Paths of Glory are also very interesting. i think that as historians we often belittle the importance of 'populist' interpretations, seeing them as somehow less worthy of study. i cannot imagine an exam paper quoting from or paraphrasing a TV/Film clip and asking students to evaluate spielberg's/ben elton's interpretation. however, in many ways these are the most important interpretations for our pupils to study and evaluate. these interpretations shape the views of 'joe public' far more than 'official' interpretations do.

a totally up to date example of this is the current row in the USA over a TV biopic of Reagan:


i do not wish for this seminar to get side-tracked into becoming a debate on Reagan, i simply include this example to illustrate the power of the mass media to shape 'popular myth'. the article suggests to me that the republican outrage at the portrayal of Reagan has little to do with upsetting him or his family and more to do with the power they know the (liberal) TV/Film community have in shaping public perceptions, such a film is able to have a huge impact on the interpretation the public will hold of reagan in the future.

despite all of this, classrooms up and down the country witness exercises using TV/Film clips being evaluated as sources not as interpretations. this brings me full circle back to my original posting - too much elitism about what is an interpretation. in the real world the most influencial interpretations are often the least academic, but this does not make them less worthy of study
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#37 D Letouzey

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Posted 10 November 2003 - 10:59 AM

3 facts for this new message :
- Teaching Thucydide and athenian history
- Le Monde 's title " les catholiques et " l'intégrisme laïque "
- WW1 history.

Thucydides :
" My conclusions have cost me some labour from the want of coincidence between accounts of the same occurrences by different eye-witnesses, arising sometimes from imperfect memory, sometimes from undue partiality for one side or the other " : http://classics.mit....s/pelopwar.html (First Book).

Le Monde 's title (" Les catholiques et " l'intégrisme laïque ", - nov 7, "Catholics - rather the Church- and secular fundamentalists" 2003) reflects aspects of the french political life.
Some active minorities struggle to change the 1905 law, which separate Church and State.

- What can we read in a newspaper ? Actual facts, or an interpretation, guided by a political view of the world ?
A view we know when we choose to buy a newspaper.

- The relations between the Catholic Church and the Republicans had been complicated, in French history. In their time, Voltaire, Victor Hugo, Emile Zola had to fight for tolerance and for freedom of speech.

- In fact, interpretation is essential for a religious organisation :
Firstly to choose what should be a "sacred" text, and what is not,
Secondly, who can officially " interpretate " this text.
On this basis, some religious leaders want to control history textbooks 'content.

WW1 history : books, radios, newspapers are full of WW1.
Not only because Tuesday is November 11th.
But also because some historians say that every XXth crime had its roots in WW1.
Historians are arguing :
how many soldiers did kill enemies during this war ?
Did these soldiers volunteer (Kitchener 's army),
or did they simply obey orders (Paths of Glory) ?
A recent book shows that on nearly 600 soldiers sentenced to death by a French court, many were killed in 1914 and 1915, and not only after the 1917 mutinies.

It should be interesting, in a european or world perspective, to teach more comparative history, and to study how British, French, Germans, Russians... react to war violence in the XXth century, with their own history, and their own culture.

Subsidiary question, how long may it take before these historical debates reach rank and file teachers, in ordinary schools ?

#38 Christine


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Posted 02 October 2004 - 09:03 AM


I have found this seminar invaluable. Last year I was really unhappy about the way I taught "Oliver Cromwell" and after reading through this I think I've sorted out my misinterpretations of interpretations - if you see what I mean.

At present I'm revamping an interpretation assessment about Haig (and I guess others will be too). The interpretations I'm thinking of using are:

* The "Lions Led by Donkeys" section of Living and Dying (BBC Schools)

*"Haig sweeping up the soldiers" scene in the last Blackadder

*An obituary

*Modern historian's view

*Excerpt from a novel - (any suggestions greatfully received)

*And perhaps a few lines from "Oh what a lovely war"

Last year on this assessment I included the memoirs of old soldiers.
Would I be correct in thinking that theseare not interpretations because the soldiers were involved and therefore their views are influenced by the event itself?

Thanks for a great seminar


#39 Richard Drew

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Posted 02 October 2004 - 12:31 PM

Your sources on Haig sound like an excellent cross-section and variety. i would arue that the soldiers views are not a genuine interpretation - they are not trying to interpret a past event rather to express their views on an event they were involved in, however for the purposes of the exercise they would provide a valuable alternative view, and could even prompt a discussion with your student about whether they view the soldier's views as interpretations or not - a genuine insight for them into what an interpretation is!!!!!
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#40 Christine


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Posted 02 October 2004 - 01:32 PM

Thanks Richard

I think I'll include the old soldiers memoirs in the previous lesson when we study some background about Haig. Then we can have the discussion as to whether they are interpretations or not.

The lesson before we begin Haig will be analysing and evaluating the accuracy of Blackadder as an interpretation. So they should be able to remember what a historical interpretation is.

At present they are producing their own interpretations in the form of poems or paintings - perhaps we should evaluate them too.

At this rate I'll never get to WW2!

Thanks again

#41 Robin Wichard

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 11:24 AM

I cannot help but feel that this debate is at the heart of much GCSE work regardless of the specification.

As a senior examiner I was involved in revising the specificiation for SHP (AQA) when these changes were introduced. There was considerable debate (along the lines of these contributions) about the nature of what actually consituted an interpretation.

The way in which the QCA requirements were interpreted (no pun intended) was to see the 'old' idea of Primary and Secondary Sources being replaced by terminology in which, to all intents and purposes, Primary Sources were replaced by the generic word 'sources'.

Any attempt to collect together a variety of 'sources' without analysis (for example a museum display) would be a 'representation' whereas any attempt to draw together a range of 'sources' and evaluate/interpret them would produce an 'interpretation'.

This is reflected in the AQA specification Assessment Objectives where:

AO 6.2 is the Use of Sources: using sources critically in their context, by comprehending, nalysing, evaluating and interpreting them.

AO 6.3 is Interpretations and Representation of the Past: Comprehend, analyse, and evaluate, in relation to the historical context how and why historical events, people, situations and changes have ben interpreted and represented in different ways.

The specification does also point out 'Although the assessment objectives are expressed separately, they are not wholly discrete'.

In broad terms 'source' skills relate to the interpretation and evaluation of sources in relation to an event/character whereas 'interpretation' skills relate to the historical process - how a historian might reach a conclusion about the past and the limitations of the process.

I have always had reservations about this for the reasons so articulately expressed by earlier contributors. At GCSE and earlier levels both source and interpretation skills can become so simplistic as to be meaningless. A more serious concern is the emphasis in source evaluation on assuming faults with a source. There is an inappropriate arrogance in the assumtion that a 16 year old student should be asked to criticise the work of established historians taken out of context and edited to be contentious.

This does lead to the automatic assumption tht all sources are likely to be biased and inaccurate. We should instead be asking students to consider why a particular source or interpretation should be regared as reliable.

Having said all that while I believe that there is a need to review the skills element of the assessment I do not believe, as some contributors have implied, that we should 'throw the baby out with the bath water'.
A page of history is worth a book of mathematics
Oliver Wendall Holmes (1809-1864)

#42 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 09 November 2004 - 01:15 PM

A more serious concern is the emphasis in source evaluation on assuming faults with a source. There is an inappropriate arrogance in the assumtion that a 16 year old student should be asked to criticise the work of established historians taken out of context and edited to be contentious.


This is not restricted to UK or GCSE level students. There is a question on Paper 1 of IB history which is worded identically every year. In May 2003, students were asked 'With reference to their origin and purpose, assess the value and limitations for historians studying Stalin’s agricultural policy, of Sources B and D.'

For top marks the markscheme requires students to find strengths and weaknesses in Source D, A History of 20th Century Russia by Robert Service.

The markscheme then offers the following points that might be worthy of marks 'The origin of Source D is that it is an extract from a book written by an historian, and published in London in 1997. Its purpose is to inform its readers about the history of Russia in the twentieth century. Its value is that it is written after the opening of the Russian archives, and provided the author has researched and referenced his work thoroughly, it could present a balanced overall account. Its limitations are that it was written long after the events described, the political stance of the writer is not stated, but it is published in the west and some of the language suggests that it might be subjective in approach.' My emphasis.
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