History is an argument about how to interpret the past, but students often think of it as a timeline of events or a straightforward set of facts. To counteract this, I emphasize in my classes that the past cannot be examined without interpretation, and that historians will arrive at different, and often conflicting, conclusions.
I have found the best way to demonstrate this is to bring my students to the archives. When my students examine original documents in the archives, they are empowered to interpret sources, debate their conclusions, and ultimately produce what educational theorist Benjamin S. Bloom would describe as “higher order” intellectual work.
In 1956, Bloom categorized such cognitive activities into a hierarchy. In 2000, Lorin W. Anderson, et al published a revised version of Bloom’s Taxonomy which begins at the bottom with remembering, understanding, and applying, and which moves up to the activities of analyzing, evaluating and creating.1
Work with archival collections requires students to move into the higher order activities at the top of Bloom’s Taxonomy. Unlike textbooks, primary sources can rarely be read simply for information. Instead of memorizing facts about past events and people, researchers must place primary sources in a larger context and interpret them.
When my early American history students visit the reading room and pore over an original document, they engage in close reading, encounter new vocabulary, decipher difficult handwriting, encounter unfamiliar formats, and draw on pre-existing knowledge to decide how to interpret a particular source. These activities help students develop the confidence to examine and assess historical information. They leave the archive with the skills required to create historical narratives of their own.
When students complete the research paper in my course, they shift from a process of knowledge acquisition to a process of knowledge creation. They become historians when they assert the importance and meaning of a primary source.
The paper assignment also forces students to seek out contextual knowledge on their own. When students locate information based on a specific need (in this case, to better understand and interpret a primary source), they more effectively retain that historical context. For example, students who study documents showing the transfer of land from the Canarsie tribe in Brooklyn to the Dutch settlers need to look up simple contemporary words like wampum and kijls. They also need to learn about complexities like the usufruct system of land ownership used by the Canarsie.
This focus on research and argument helps students understand and critique the historical claims they will encounter throughout their lives, such as debates about Second Amendment rights or changing definitions of marriage. They develop the skills needed to examine how the past is portrayed in the movies, examined in the news, and employed by politicians.
When students visit the archives, they sit physically and intellectually in the process of knowledge creation. Archival research gives students the skills and power to examine historical claims, and if need be, to argue back.
To cite this page:
Geoff D. Zylstra, “History is an Argument,” TeachArchives.org, accessed [insert date here], http://wwww.teacharchives.org/articles/history-is-an-argument/.