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Interpretations - Misunderstod skill?


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#16 Richard Drew

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Posted 21 October 2003 - 07:03 PM

so that would be preemptive-reflection i guess!!!!!

a very interesting notion John, to reflect in advance and act upon this in order to control future reflections and interpretations.

i guess the only trouble here, is (as i mentioned earlier) actually being able to show such motivations, rather than just speculating about them, but if we could then it would lead to a lot of interesting lessons.

your other point about museums is fabulous John, a comparison of british and french museum displays on ww1 would be excellent interpretations work.
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#17 Richard Drew

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Posted 21 October 2003 - 07:35 PM

Effective strategies for assessing pupils understanding of interpretations

if like my pupils yours are taught that all history (other than dates and statistics - and sometimes them too!!!) is interpretations, it can become difficult to assess their interpretations skills.

they become utterly adept at spotting different interpretations, suggesting reasons for differing interpretations and describing the differences between interpretations.

assessing pupils interpretations skills has to focus primarily on their evaulation of interpretations. in so doing we also allow pupils to display their sourcework skills and their K&U.

as i have said eariler, i feel it is bad history to ask pupils to make generalised assumptions/educated guesses about historians, and so in any assessment focus should be put upon pupils ability to weigh up the relative merits of an interpretations against their own K&U and any sources we make available to them.

here we can follow a few main methods:

firstly we can ask them to simply use their own K&U to assess the interpretation

secondly we can ask them to use sources to assess an interpretation of an issue they have little/no knowledge of - a real challenge to their source comprehension and evaluation skills

or we can offer them a middle way between these two.


if we are able to find an interpretation by a figure they have already studied and therefore have background knowledge of, they can even be expected to make a intelligent attempt at evaluating the attribution of the interpretation.

my own pupils have no problem achieving high marks on such assessments, they have a useful method lodged in their brains:

is the interpretation valid?

1) agree using the sources
2) agree using own knowledge
3) disagree using sources
4) disagree using own knowledge
5) assess attribution
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#18 ralph

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Posted 27 October 2003 - 11:45 PM

Interesting to read about historical interpretations and the variety of responses to this critical aspect of teaching history. Being from Canada I have no idea what your various levels and examination issues but several thoughts came to mind while I read your thought provoking responses.
a) are you talking about teaching interpretation or are your really teaching that bias is inherent in historical sources?- they are different concepts to me
B) in Ontario where I teach,we have been struggling to bring history alive. The best that I have come up with is a starting point that history is really a form or inquiry. As a result, interpretation starts with the nature of the question you want to ask. True, you may not want to ask if the Americans should have dropped the A-Bomb if you don't feel the students have the necessary background or maturity to handle it but what if students cannot know enough to respond like University student- do you give up and keep plowing through the "facts" until the magical time when all is understood? That is not for me. Why not encourage inquiry-that the question has to be open ended, have more than one answer and different people could have different answers and and trust your judgement that kids are sufficiently prepared to answer the questions you pose?
c) i recently completed a study of the causes of Confederation in Canada- We focused on the American threats that prompted Confederation and after looking at 8-10 of those we asked if the threat was real or imagined. We could then relate this to the nature of the American "threat" today and if it is real or imagined. They had some history to make the decision and they were students in our last year of high school so they have worked with inquiry questions. They made an interpretation that has significance to their world.

#19 Richard Drew

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Posted 28 October 2003 - 08:12 PM

Thanks for your response Ralph. i'll try to deal with your points in turn:

a] you are right to point out two different skills here. this is central to understanding what interpretations are. this is why i have returned again and again to the idea of 'reflection' when interpretations are created.

to teach that sources are biased takes about 0 minutes, because kids already know this and don't need to be taught it, it is part of their naturally questioning nature. to teach them that learned reflection on an event produces varying interpretations, now that is different, and is the very basic level of interpretations - we would expect pupils to be able to be aware of and identify this at about age 11.

b] what you describe here sounds like you are seeking to give your pupils the knowledge, skils and confidence to develop their own interpretation of past events. a vital and useful skills for pupils, which i do not in any way seek to malign. here in the UK our National Curriculum and exam boards seek us to teach the skill of identifying, explaining and evaluating interpretations - i.e. studying interpretations that have been developed, usually by historians. my point here was that we should view interpretations as more than the views of historians.

indeed in explaining and evaluating the views of others, pupils are naturally developing their own viewpoints.

with regard to 'should the USA have dropped the A-bomb?', i'mnot sure if this is a history exercise or a philosophy and citizenship exercise. studying the evidence will never produce objective facts to proce this one way or the other. if you are seeking to encourage pupils to study the evidence and then to reach their own interpretation which they can then justify and critique in line with the views of other historians then fantastic.

c] providing students with the skills to develop their own interpretations is indeed a very important thing. it is something that has to be handled very carefully and involves considerable effort on the part of the teacher. the teacher will have to:
~ ensure a wide range of sources and interpretations are available, andnot allow their own personal interpretation to affect this process
~ ensure that all interpretations are given equal weighting if pupils are truely to develop their own interpretation
~ ensure that their personal viewpoints to not cloud their judgements of the pupils' final views and materials

this is all really hard to do, i applaud you for doing it Ralph. i for one sometimes find myself slipping from the lofty perch we all have to occupy in the classroom when it comes to teaching interpretations
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#20 Dan Lyndon

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Posted 29 October 2003 - 05:17 PM

I wonder if the film 'the battle of the somme' would come into your category of interpretation

that element of reflection, of deliberate attempt to explain the past that is necessary to qualify them as an interpretation

as this was an example of the events being interpreted for the benefits of the British public. I am sure that most of us are aware that a number of the scenes were 'reconstructed' in order to create a more positive portrayal of the battle, and as this was done intentionally AFTER the event it seems to be a valid source for working through this skill.

I personally enjoy teaching Interpretations and made a very good impact on my new headteacher who observed a lesson when I looked at different interpretations of the Middle Ages (taken from the ReDiscovering the Medieval Realms, SHP book). He thought it was marvellous that I had 'tricked' the class (neither group were aware that they had different images) and then got a lively debate going. However, I do feel that my students find this the hardest of all of the skill areas to develop. They can identify if a source is biased, they can even attempt to discuss the provenance of the source (ie how the interpretatation is different) but they seem to struggle to explain the why - I guess this is one of the points that you made at the beginning of the seminar, and I shall have to look again at how I develop this area with them.
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#21 Richard Drew

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Posted 29 October 2003 - 08:07 PM

I personally enjoy teaching Interpretations and made a very good impact on my new headteacher who observed a lesson when I looked at different interpretations of the Middle Ages (taken from the ReDiscovering the Medieval Realms, SHP book). He thought it was marvellous that I had 'tricked' the class (neither group were aware that they had different images) and then got a lively debate going.

sounds great Dan.

i notice a theme developing. i was observed as part of a project at my school doing the Henry VIII exercise i described above, the obersver was gushing in their praise of the lesson to all who would listen.

i think that many other teachers are very pleasantly surprised by the level of complexity and 'reality' that we inject into our lessons at such an early stage. after all we are engaging y7 pupils in the central issues around human thought and opinion - what other subjects can touch that at such an early stage?
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#22 D Letouzey

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Posted 30 October 2003 - 08:42 PM

Interpretation : a misunterstood skill ?


I shall not discuss the situation in English schools, but try to suggest some French issues, in lycees (15-18) (I wish to thank Carole for her reading) :

1 - First, interpretation is in what you choose to teach : Hitler 's nazi Germany ? English history (for instance Elisabeth I and her time) ? European history (for instance the Roman Empire, or the roman roots of the EU) ?
Last June, in The Guardian, a paper criticised British teachers : they were spending too much time on German history…

In France, this issue is settled by official texts, both for the exact wording, and for the official historical understanding of each historical subject.
In 1985 (left wing government), we had to study the French Revolution, its economic causes, and its role in the history of human rights and democracy.
In 1995 (right wing governement), the history of Christianity became one of the new subjects.

History and politics, another example : in french lycees, medieval history is limited to a study of the XIIth century Mediterranean. That was the time of the Crusades, however most textbooks emphasize the fact that in Sicily, in Andalucia, Christians, Muslims and Jews were supposed to have lived together in peace.

French specialists see this as a positive shift from nationalistic history (Bodicea or Vercingetorix fighting the Romans, Joan of Arc figthing the British) to a study of wider European history. This can be seen as progress, unless we begin practicing a new "mythological" history. In the past, Europe has also been a battlefield, in a continuous fight for political domination.


2 - Teachers also have to rely on historiography and its complex surges.
After 1929, economic and social history had a dominant explanatory role, strengthened by the impact of Marxist theory.
Now, in a post-industrial economy, cultural history is taking a larger place explaining historical events, " cultural " frequently meaning "religious ".

French historiography seems to have some difficulties comprehending diversity : several years ago, a controversy opposed historians of the French Revolution, marxists and liberals.
In 2003, studying WW1 is thinking "culture de guerre" (culture of war), after George Mosse's books.


3 - Historians have to deal with social or political memories.
Last year, the Caen memorial museum organised a conference on the Armenian genocide of 1915. Several young students came to protest : they were of Turkish origin. Though they had been taught, in french schools, to think critically, and though they had learnt European and World History, they were pretending that their Turkish ancestors had no responsibility in this mass murder.


4 - Holocaust, history and interpretation :

" interpretation starts with the nature of the question you want to ask ".

" The Destruction of the European Jews " (Raul Hillberg) shows how all these factors play.

In a 1965 textbook, it was summarized in 9 lines. It is now taught as a main aspect of the history of the second world war.
The essential question, for me, is how can, in 6 years, a dictator change ordinary citizens of a civilised country into killers and torturers ? In such a case, lots of questions are asked by pupils, especially those who may have read Primo Levi.

But usually, none of them pretend to defend the torturers ' point of view.
Most of the pupils ignore the technical controversy between historians ("intentionalist' vs "functionalist ").
But can a teacher forget the links between the history of the Holocaust, and American or Israeli politics. (cf P Novick « The Holocaust in American Life » (1999)) ?

Many others subjects could be analysed from interpretation as a skill : South Africa and the history of the apartheid, the American war of Independance (comparing American, British and French views..), Africa, from colonialisation to independance...


5 - In France, there seems to be a gap between theory and practical teaching :
in an exam paper, students must explain and comment on documents, " y compris de manière critique " ( « also evaluating bias »).
In fact, most of the time, the majority knows the subject well enough to write an essay, but most students lack the precise knowledge (and experience?) which would allow them to differentiate between what is written in an official document and what was, from today's perspective, the real history. Some of them may quote Hitler 's racism without using quotation marks.

Interpretation as a skill can be taught by studying texts which give controversial views of an historical event : for instance, in june 1940, de Gaulle ‘s speech at the BBC vs Petain, two different explanations of the French defeat which lead to opposite political and military choices.


6 - To conclude this rather pessimistic message, I shall add that studying interpretations is more common outside history, in politics and in geography : dealing with the Middle East history, or considering world environmental issues are other ways to teach and learn democratic culture and practices.

#23 Richard Drew

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Posted 30 October 2003 - 10:43 PM

thankyou very much for this very eloquent posting. i for one find this insight into French history teaching fascinating.

the idea of official viewpoints as interpretation is a very interesting one.

i wonder, what opportunities are there to examine the differing 'official text' as interpretations in themselves and for discussing and analysing the reasons for these differences - rather like we would with the views of individual historians and texts.
is this possible in your lycees? or is such debate and study left to higher education?
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#24 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 01 November 2003 - 10:40 AM

To achieve good marks in a GCSE exam you have to provide evidence that agrees with an interpretation and evidence that disagrees with an interpretation, almost no marks are offered for analysing or explaining the intperpretation. As such the interpretation is not used as an interpretation, but rather as a springboard to a mini-argumentative essay. In reality what is the point of quoting an historian (usually utterly out of context) and then saying ‘in the quote the historian is saying that Hitler improved the lives of the German people. Is this a valid interpretation?’ Why not just ask ‘Did Hitler improve the lives of the German people?’ Clearly the use of interpretations on GCSE exam papers encourages poor teaching of interpretations lower down the school.

This has been an outstanding seminar and in my view our most interesting yet. Your views on GCSE exam papers in particular struck a chord with me. But I have my suspicions that the problem is even deeper rooted. I have always felt that difficulties arise from a (inevitable?) conflation of empirical ‘document work’ - almost a common sense approach to the problem - and more profound philosophical reflection on how we make sense of the past.

I also think that problems result from the (British?) historian’s general scepticism of all things theoretical: the truth is out there somewhere, if we can just strip our sources of all biases and learn to read them ‘properly’. When in the late 60s/early 70s history teachers sought something more student centred and accessible than factual recall and essay writing, it was hardly surprising that the ‘new history’ reflected a certain Rankean common sense approach. I think this goes some way to explain our over-emphasis on the analysis and evaluation of (usually cotemporary) written documents and our neglect of interpretation in the widest sense.

‘Interpretations are in essence thoughtful efforts to represent and explain past events’There are 3 vital elements to interpretations: -
Thoughtful efforts – Interpretations are conscious reflections on the past, not simply irrational spur-of-the-moment opinions.
Representations – Interpretations are efforts to give an audience an image or description of the event/issue being focused on
Past events – Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not of the participants in those events. Without the process of reflection removed from the event by time the creator of the view is inevitably partially influenced by the impact the person/event had on them.


This is very interesting and has had me thinking throughout the holiday. I don’t think I have any serious problems with the first two parts of this, but the third temporal exclusion of ‘participants’ from interpretation will create problems. As Alison has already recognised in her critique of John:

Very interesting on the World War One photos - but in what sense are these interpretations? They do not seem to include that element of reflection, of deliberate attempt to explain the past that is necessary to qualify them as an interpretation. They are someone's deliberate attempt to explain their present and are not interpretations therefore. I know this is a grey area, especially if you consider paintings which are from the time or very close to it.

Even you (Richard) do not manage to sustain the requirement that ‘Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not of the participants in those events’, when in your practical examples (which are excellent) you have students ‘examine the slave trade from the perspective of a slave and then of a slave owner’ or ‘divide your class up into members of the NMA, royalists, puritan MPs and ordinary protestants during the Commonwealth’.

I would be happier if you third quality of interpretation read ‘Past events – Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not usually of the participants in those events’ And said no more

As with empathy, I was uncomfortable with aspects of the National Curriculum that dealt with interpretations so I developed an alternative approach. For my ‘middle school history skills’ I distinguish between two different methodological approaches: the empirical ‘worm’s eye view’ and the theoretical ‘bird’s eye view’. Both can be concerned with problems of interpreting the past, the difference comes down to emphasis and perspective.

What we generally call ‘source work’ I categorized as the ‘empirical (or worm’s eye) methodology’. ‘Worm’s eye’ methodology because the pupil is concerned with a close up analysis and evaluation of sources/evidence that the past has left behind. This is typically what we understand as ‘skills’ at GCSE and which for me is a two-hour document paper: compare and contrast, how useful? How reliable? etc.

In contrast, theoretical (or bird’s eye) methodology concerns itself with the big picture in history. This is where National Curriculum ‘interpretations’ fit in. My adaptation of the NC reads:

‘Theoretical (or bird’s eye) methodology. Understanding the difference between ‘the past and history’ and working towards an appreciation of the epistemological fragility of history. Pupils develop their understanding of how and why some historical events, people, situations and changes have been interpreted differently and evaluate these interpretations…’

The ‘past/history’ distinction (borrowed from Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History) is the key to understanding my theoretical approach. The idea that history (in the broadest sense of the word) is made by people in the present, through things like selection and narrative convention, with the intent to give the past meaning and often with political or commercial intent. For this reason I start my IB syllabus with this quote from Hobsbawm:

I used to think that the profession of history, unlike that of, say, nuclear physics, could at least do no harm. Now I know it can. Our studies can turn into bomb factories like the workshops in which the IRA has learned to transform chemical fertilizer into an explosive… We have a responsibility to historical facts in general, and for criticizing the politico-ideological abuse of history in particular’.

I thought Daniel’s contribution to the understanding of ‘interpretation’ very useful in this respect. His first point that 'interpretation is in what you choose to teach' is very pertinent to me because I have international kids to teach and no National Curriculum to restrict me. The first question I always get asked is 'whose history do you teach?' With my IB class I examine the debate over Japanese textbooks which threatened the last football World Cup, whixh also ties in with Daniel's third point that: 'Historians have to deal with social or political memories. '

In years 7-9 I use many of the same opportunities as most other British teachers to teach interpretations: Bayeux Tapestry, Armada etc. In addition, I use an outstanding activity from the Y8 ‘Think Through History’ series, which has a role-play interpretative debate on what London was like in c1600.

Cinema and field trips (esp. to heritage centres) are, as you suggest, always excellent opportunities to analyse interpretations, I used Mel Gibson’s Gallipoli and a trip to Oradour-sur-Glane recently for this purpose.

In order to continue the progression of KS3 into GCSE I have consciously gone beyond the requirements of the syllabus in the coursework and in parallel project work. In my coursework, my markscheme on the Reichstag Fire requires students to understand that differences in the interpretation of guilt can not be explained by the unreliability of ‘primary sources’ (said through gritted teeth.) alone. The last question requires some 'bird's eye', theoretical reflection (interpretation), whereas the penultimate 'worm's eye' question merely acts as a 'springboard to a mini-argumentative essay'.

Similarly on my Appeasement coursework I will expect the best students to understand the changing debate in terms of the ‘all history is contemporary history’ dictum: guilty men, Churchillian/Cold war orthodoxy and revision with archives open, Blair/Bush and learning the lessons of history (JDClare v Mr Spartacus et al). But according to the exam boards’ mark scheme, I could give full marks without students doing any ‘interpretation’ as I understand it.

However, most of my serious GCSE interpretation work takes place ‘off syllabus’, with no exam credit going to the students. We spend a few weeks on Nazi propaganda and Leni Reifenstahl. Is Triumph of the Will interpretation or ‘just an ordinary source’? Analysing ToW is to my mind interpretation, yet I’m not sure this stands up to your temporal qualification.

I also have the students direct, produce and edit their own propaganda films which gives them an powerful insight into how interpretation is technically generated: importance of music, camera angle, lighting etc. Most people learn their history through TV documentary and cinema ‘interpretation’, but how much time do we dedicate to enabling our students to deconstruct this medium? More importantly how many exam papers give students the opportunity to show that they can do it?

At IB things are not much better. There is a fantastic introductory course that all students have to study called TOK. I teach the history component of this at my school and it is the most interesting thing I ever get to do in the classroom. In TOK, I take Keith Jenkins’ (reading of David Lowenthal’s brilliant The Past is a Foreign Country) four-point analysis of the ‘epistemological fragility of history’ as my starting point:

1. Most of the past is unknowable
2. The past has no absolute reality
3. History is present orientated
4. Historians give the past meaning

Then in the IB history exams we do document work in the intellectually moribund way you describe for GCSE, jumping through the hoops for a standardized examination system. But clearly the people who are responsible for TOK history and IB Diploma history occupy different parts of the IB building (and intellectual universe).

Where ever possible I try to do some serious historiography and encourage students to consider TOK issues in their coursework assignments (there are some good texts to help now – notably by John Warren). But generally, historiography at IB means depressing name-dropping of names of historians and the general ideas associated with various schools of interpretation….

Once again, excellent seminar, thanks.
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#25 Richard Drew

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Posted 01 November 2003 - 01:32 PM

Even you (Richard) do not manage to sustain the requirement that ‘Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not of the participants in those events’, when in your practical examples (which are excellent) you have students ‘examine the slave trade from the perspective of a slave and then of a slave owner’ or ‘divide your class up into members of the NMA, royalists, puritan MPs and ordinary protestants during the Commonwealth’.

I would be happier if you third quality of interpretation read ‘Past events – Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not usually of the participants in those events’ And said no more

Thankyou very much for your exellent contribution Richard, and thanks for picking up on my own contradiction. this is something i wrestle with myself.

i think your redefinition of my comment is probably much better

i am also indebted to you for your passing on of the "four-point analysis of the ‘epistemological fragility of history’ ", this is something that will be finding its way into my classroom over the next few weeks

Edited by Richard Drew, 01 November 2003 - 01:33 PM.

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#26 John Simkin

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 08:24 AM

I would be happier if you third quality of interpretation read ‘Past events – Interpretations are the reflections of those studying the past, not usually of the participants in those events’ And said no more

As with empathy, I was uncomfortable with aspects of the National Curriculum that dealt with interpretations so I developed an alternative approach. For my ‘middle school history skills’ I distinguish between two different methodological approaches: the empirical ‘worm’s eye view’ and the theoretical ‘bird’s eye view’. Both can be concerned with problems of interpreting the past, the difference comes down to emphasis and perspective.

What we generally call ‘source work’ I categorized as the ‘empirical (or worm’s eye) methodology’. ‘Worm’s eye’ methodology because the pupil is concerned with a close up analysis and evaluation of sources/evidence that the past has left behind. This is typically what we understand as ‘skills’ at GCSE and which for me is a two-hour document paper: compare and contrast, how useful? How reliable? etc. 

In contrast, theoretical (or bird’s eye) methodology concerns itself with the big picture in history. This is where National Curriculum ‘interpretations’ fit in. My adaptation of the NC reads:

‘Theoretical (or bird’s eye) methodology. Understanding the difference between ‘the past and history’ and working towards an appreciation of the epistemological fragility of history. Pupils develop their understanding of how and why some historical events, people, situations and changes have been interpreted differently and evaluate these interpretations…’

The ‘past/history’ distinction (borrowed from Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History) is the key to understanding my theoretical approach. The idea that history (in the broadest sense of the word) is made by people in the present, through things like selection and narrative convention, with the intent to give the past meaning and often with political or commercial intent.

Over the last couple of days I have been looking closely at the life of Martin Niemöller. The interpretation of his behaviour in Nazi Germany has close links with this discussion.

In July 1937 Niemöller was arrested by the Nazi regime. His friend, George Bell, the Bishop of Chichester, took up his case in Britain. What is interesting is that newspapers like the Daily Telegraph joined the campaign. They had tended to ignore the imprisonment of left-wing critics of Hitler but Niemöller was a well-known right-winger who had until recently been a strong supporter of the Nazi Party.

We now know that Niemöller was to be executed in 1938. However, the publicity that his case was getting in Britain convinced Hitler that it might be dangerous to make a martyr out of Niemöller. During the war Niemöller became a symbol of resistance to Nazi Germany and he acquired a saint-like status. The Allied soldier who freed him apparently said that when he met him he felt like he should kiss his hand in respect.

If Niemöller had been killed in 1938 or in the war (Hitler ordered his execution in 1945 but his guards were worried about the possible consequences of that and decided to let him live) there is little doubt what sort of interpretations historians would have made of Niemöller’s role in resisting Hitler.

However, Niemöller did not die. What is more he disagreed with the interpretations that had already been made of his behaviour. On 5th June 1945 Niemöller issued a statement. He confessed that he was still a German nationalist and in 1939, while in prison, had offered to join the German Navy. He also confessed that he had "never quarrelled with Hitler over political matters, but purely on religious grounds". That he had never opposed the Nazi racial theories, but merely the suppression of the Church in Germany.

Niemöller was aware that he could have made a statement that would have reinforced the idea that he was a hero. However, he believed that truth was more important. This statement appalled the Daily Telegraph and it now began a campaign to change the image of the man who for the previous six years had been portrayed as a hero. When Niemöller asked for permission to visit Britain in 1945 the Daily Telegraph led the campaign to have him banned. Left wing journals such as the New Statesman joined the clamour to keep him out. The Home Secretary was eventually persuaded by these arguments and he was refused entry.

The point I am making is that any interpretation of the past relies heavily on a very close analysis of the primary sources available. What is more they have to take into account the primary sources that do not exist (my point about the photographs available from the First World War). They also have to consider the point in history when the interpretation is made. As in the case of Niemöller, interpretations of his behaviour depends on what stage in the process it is written.

There was a fascinating documentary on Friday on the 1953 floods in Britain. It was pointed out that with over 500 British people dying in these floods it was the worst disaster in recent British history. However, it has not become part of the British consciousness. A historian argued that the reason for this was that the story did not fit into the accepted narrative of British history.

The same is true of If Niemöller. Details of his 1945 press release are unlikely to appear in any history of the resistance to Hitler. It does not fit into the accepted narrative. Especially as Niemöller’s behaviour after 1945 fitted in with our view of him as a major figure in the resistance to intolerance.

The problem that worries me is it possible to teach children the complexities of interpreting the past. If not, is it acceptable to simplify it so that it does become something they can understand. If so, will this have any long-term impact on how they understand the past.

Edited by John Simkin, 02 November 2003 - 08:26 AM.


#27 Richard Drew

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 08:37 AM

The point I am making is that any interpretation of the past relies heavily on a very close analysis of the primary sources available. What is more they have to take into account the primary sources that do not exist

an obvious example of this is King John. in our "Has history judged King John fairly?" unit at my school we spend a couple of lessons studying primary, and secondary evidence - most notably the primary records of monks and the recent "Most Evil men in History - King John" programme from Channel 5.

What this exercise effecrtively communicates is the point John S makes - the evidence that does not exist is just as important when seeking to explain how an interpretation (especially 'popular myth') is generated. We rely so much on the testimony of those connected with the Church in the era of Richard & John that their religious actions almost entirely gernerate their popular interpretation.

John's poinyt about the point in the process at which the interpretation is written could ring very true today for William Hague - utterly lambasted between 97-01 as incompetent and pathetic everywhere apart from the dispatch box, he is now being 'rewritten' in the light of the even greater incompetence of his successor, and his forays into the world of TV presentation (e.g. the Big Read last weekend).

Edited by Richard Drew, 02 November 2003 - 08:38 AM.

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#28 Richard Jones-Nerzic

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 09:43 AM

The point I am making is that any interpretation of the past relies heavily on a very close analysis of the primary sources available.

The problem is that they don't. The better the history, the more likely your statement is to be true, but what makes an interpretation hegemonic can have little to do with the inherent quality of the historical analysis and everything to do with power. For example I came across a fascinating interpretation about Niemöller this morning:

'After much research I have come to the conclusion that Martin Niemöller never wrote this poem. I suspect it was written by a left-wing peace campaigner after the death of Niemöller in 1984. They were aware that the poem would be ignored if it was published under their name. Therefore, they put the name on the poem of a person who could well have written such a poem – Martin Niemöller. This helps to explain why it does not appear in books of quotations published before the 1990s'. John Simkin
http://www.schoolhis...?showtopic=2198

But whether this becomes a widely accepted interpretation will have as much to with your power to put it on Spartacus, as the quality of your research. As you explained:

'I will be adding this information to my website today. As it is ranked fifth at Google it will be interesting to see how quickly this interpretation becomes copied to other websites. If it does, you heard it here first.'

Whist I think that learning to analyse sources (the empirical, 'worm's eye' approach) is an important skill, it does not always help the student explain how interpretations shift over time or become, in this example, dominant. This requires a different, more philosophical approach to the question of how history is made (the theoretical or 'bird's eye' approach). In general, and this was Richard's original point, I don't think we always do such a good job of this, partly (if we accept his thesis) because our examination system does not require it.
All that is necessary for the forces of evil to win in the world is for enough good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke


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#29 John Simkin

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 10:27 AM

The ‘past/history’ distinction (borrowed from Keith Jenkins’ Rethinking History) is the key to understanding my theoretical approach. The idea that history (in the broadest sense of the word) is made by people in the present, through things like selection and narrative convention, with the intent to give the past meaning and often with political or commercial intent.

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?

Edited by John Simkin, 02 November 2003 - 10:29 AM.


#30 Richard Drew

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Posted 02 November 2003 - 11:47 AM

How many history teachers are in fact aware that this is actually a problem?

i think that this is a very important point John:

i fear that many history teachers do teach interpretations badly, training pupils for GCSE from y7 by just getting them to do pointless 2-sided arguments

i also fear that many history teachers (and here i do not mean anyone on this forum) simply view their own interpretation of events (e.g. Elizabeth I was great, the Battle of the Somme was pointless) as a universal truth and create activities to create this impression in the minds of their pupils
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