Some Ideas about Teaching
Sources and interpretations
QUOTE(alison denton @ Dec 9 2005, 08:47 PM)
history really interpretations?
is there any difference between 'sources' and 'interpretations'?
answers on a postcard .......
This was a
brilliant post, Alison, very thought-provoking as well as insightful.
For years I've banged on about this, that a 'source' is not an
'interpretation', although - as you so brilliantly draw out - they do
As I see it:
is just what the word
properly means - an origin. It is one of the original (primary) pieces of
information which inform us about what was happening at the time. Of course
it comprises opinions as well as facts, but it is essentially a building
brick, which historians/commentators/interpreters later use to build their
constructs. The work you do on sources is therefore, about reliability,
is also as its name implies - to expound, to make intelligible, to represent
the meaning of. It MUST for me be a comment upon events. Now, of
course, sometimes people are beginning to comment upon events VERY close to
the time - for instance, newspapers interpret the events of their time
almost immediately they are happening. Also, as Alison so succinctly pointed
out, people's interpretations are based at least as much on where they are
coming from themselves as they are on what was actually happening upon which
they are commenting. Interpretations therefore also change through time, as
the degree of hindsight and our own personal situation changes. I have made
some attempts to supply the facts about the changing interpretations of
different events on my website (e.g.
Causes of WWI,
Thus historians can do two things with interpretations:
a. they can JUDGE the truth of the interpretation. Was the commentator right
in his interpretation? This, for me, is where history is GREAT, because it
is always therefore a huge argument.
b. you can USE them as a bank of ideas/ foils to build your own personal
There are clearly, of course, going to be some things that you can use in
BOTH ways. You could use, say, the British Gazette comments on the
General Strike, firstly as a SOURCE, to find out what was happening and
their results and impact at the time, but also as an INTERPRETATION, which
you can ask the pupils to challenge. The debate about whether something is a
source OR an interpretation is therefore utterly sterile. What makes
something a 'source' or an 'interpretation' is not the object of your
attention per se, but WHAT YOU AS AN HISTORIAN ARE DOING WITH IT.
My constant beefs are:
1. teachers and especially examiners are just not clear enough about what is
going on here. Examiners, in particular, continually get the two processes
2. the result is that - where imho REAL History is about
interpretation, and what do YOU think is going on, and have you any
prescient comments on these events, and what insight has this given you into
living your own life - 'interpretation' in so many textbooks and exams has
deteriorated erroneously into an endless series of comments about accuracy
and utility, origin, context and motive. It is equivalent to judging a
Turner masterpiece, not on the impact of the painting, but on the brushwork
in the top left corner and the chemical constituents of the oils. Thus the
discipline is demeaned and real creativity is restricted.
on: Dec 10 2005, 12:26 PM