Source Analysis Has Become the Fetish of History Teaching

I haven’t written a blog on here in a very long while. This is partly because I’m no longer teaching history and my focus has shifted towards writing history teaching resources under the name Learning For Memory, which has its own website and blogs. However, a recent Twitter conversation has prompted me to return, and try to elaborate my thoughts a little bit more comprehensively than can be done in 280 characters (even when using threads).

The original impetus for the Twitter discussion was a Tweet I saw, about an unrelated matter, which defined being a history teacher as follows: “I am a History teacher.. my day job is teaching pupils to question the provenance of sources”. Something about this assertion irritated me. I’ve heard similar things said on several previous occasions and it has made me suspect that a substantial portion of today’s history teachers consider it their main job to teach pupils how to interrogate sources. I don’t. I then went on to explain myself as follows:

For the avoidance of doubt, the main job of a history teacher is passing on rich knowledge & understanding of the periods of history being studied, & teaching pupils to construct evidence-based arguments in answer to the big questions that interest historians. Source work plays a part in this process but it is not of itself the main thing. I do think that the over-emphasis on questioning sources skews and distorts the focus on the main thing that historians do: narrate and argue their interpretation of a historical event/period.

In retrospect, I think I could have expressed myself better. However, it stimulated a short discussion which had me initially disagree with Alex Ford’s view that there can be no history without sources, before eventually conceding the point. I’m going to try to use this blog to explain my thinking a little bit more clearly.

Firstly, I’ve never really felt the need to define the job of a history teacher. I always thought it was fairly obvious what our purpose was. It’s only as I’ve immersed myself in the history teaching community that I’ve sensed a disquietening divergence of my views from the rest. I say disquietening, because I don’t particularly enjoy being controversial and would much rather my thinking blended in with the norm. I know that one of the main reasons why I have a different view of history teaching is my own experience of it at school and university, which is going back some thirty years and more. I don’t think of my experience at school and university as necessarily the best way of learning history, but it has shaped my frame of reference, so I can’t easily discount it.

And let me say this. I chose to do history at A Level and then at university because it was a subject I enjoyed. Whatever the shortcomings of my teachers or tutors, they were able to foster in me a love of the subject. By the time I graduated with a good degree from a Russell Group university, I think I had learned enough and displayed the requisite prowess to be considered a competent historian. Why do I feel the need to say all this? Well perhaps it’s because in all that time spent at school and university, primary sources featured very little in my educational programme. Of course our textbooks had pictures and maps in them, and we might have had the occasional class discussion about some cartoons in Punch magazine, but the essential mode of teaching was narrative (reading text), discursive (class discussion), note taking as the teacher spoke and essay writing.

Once I got to A Level (I did medieval history), I encountered more primary sources as part of the curriculum. I was introduced to the likes of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and William of Poitiers, and I was made aware of the differing perspectives they presented and how these should be taken into account when making an analysis. However, I was never presented with some grainy photo or an excerpt of text, and tasked with interrogating the source for bias, provenance or usefulness. Although we did engage with sources, the most important focus for class discussion was interpretation and debate. Historian A argues this point (and uses this source as evidence), whereas historian B has a different interpretation. Much of my A Level was spent reading works by prominent historians and then discussing their differing points of view in class. The essays I wrote tested my understanding of the historical debates and my ability to discuss both sets of arguments in order to answer a question.

Once I was at university, sourcework became almost non-existent. It was more discussion and debate, this time referencing a much larger number of historians when writing my essays and studying a greater number of topics in greater depth. Lots of reading, lots of underlining and note taking, lots of discussion in tutor groups and note taking during lectures. Examination and interrogation of sources? Not that I can recall. I might have read some of the Balfour Declaration when writing an essay about it so that I could quote relevant bits in making my argument, but there was no conscious examination of a source for provenance or usefulness. So understandably, I have been puzzled at the current emphasis on source analysis. It doesn’t reflect my experience of learning history at all.

When I disputed the contention “no sources, no history”, it was because much of my history education involved little engagement with sources, and yet evidently I learned some history. Had there been no sources at all in the classroom, my learning would have been that much poorer, but I think it would have been quite possible to learn some history nevertheless – much can be learned by telling a good story. Conversely, encountering more sources would have made the learning a much richer, more beguiling experience. I am not anti-sources. What I dispute is the way sources are used to somehow teach pupils to “think like a historian” and to develop a discrete skill of source interrogation so that they can never be taken in by fake news. Interrogation of sources has become the fetish of history teaching, to its detriment.

It’s very important we realise that there is a critical distinction between the professional historian and the student. Essentially, the former is a producer and the latter is a consumer. A professional historian will examine primary sources in great detail, delve into the historiography and undertake extensive research in order to come up with new perspectives on history. Their product is usually a book or an article (accompanied sometimes by a TV programme if they are high profile), where they expound their arguments, often illustrating their point with a choice quote from a source. The student is the consumer of this product, either directly or indirectly. The more mature student will read these works themselves, whereas younger pupils will receive the fruits of the historian’s labour second-hand, via the teacher or textbook. This is how the knowledge is passed down.

A teacher will decide how best to curate this knowledge so that the pupil can develop an appropriate understanding of a historical period and become acquainted with the main debates to be had. Was King John incompetent or just very unlucky? How much did society in England change as a result of the Norman Conquest? How Protestant was the population by the end of Henry VIII’s reign? By using such enquiry questions, teachers can induct pupils into the conversations of historians, making sure they understand important substantive concepts along the way: feudalism, enlightenment, revolution, monarchy, dictatorship, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, democracy… the list goes on… and introduce them to different iterations of these concepts through history. The French Revolution is quite distinct from the Russian Revolution which in turn is very distinct from the Industrial Revolution (and yes I know some historians question there even was one).

When you look at this big picture of history teaching, it seems incomprehensible to boil down the job to “teaching pupils to question the provenance of sources”. If anything, the amount of expertise required to interrogate a source is probably beyond the scope of school children. A professional historian reading a medieval text will be proficient in Latin or Old English, will be able to discern nuance in the author’s use of a particular word or the way it is spelled, will be able to cross-compare that document with many others, and so on. We can’t seriously expect our school pupils to do this except at a very superficial level of playing detective. I do, however, understand the need to ensure pupils realise that all history is interpretation and to have an idea of how history is processed. Again I reiterate: I am not anti-sources. Use them liberally, and judiciously. But don’t fool yourself into thinking that interrogating a grainy photo of a World War I trench for a whole lesson is the essence of what you do.


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