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Should History Students Be Interpreters of History?

Jon Levisohn
School of Education
Stanford University
March 2002

Many people believe that history is simply a collection of facts about the past; these facts are discovered by historians, taught by teachers, and learned by students. But this is incorrect. My work in philosophy of education focuses on understanding knowledge; in this particular research project, I develop a better and more educationally useful conception of knowledge of history. I show that historical facts are always arranged into stories, that these stories are interpretations of history, and that these interpretations are more firmly grounded than mere speculations or subjective opinions. That conception makes it clear that students should be interpreters of history, just like professional historians. It also, then, helps us think about what history to teach and how to teach it - and most importantly, why.

What are the goals of teaching history? Obviously, we want to transmit some basic facts about the past. But what else? Do we want students in history classes in high schools or colleges to be able to perform the kind of historical investigations that professionals do? In other words, do we want them to be able to interpret history?

The answer depends on how we understand the process of historical interpretation. For example, some people assume that history is simply what happened in the past, so the only goal of studying history is to know historical facts. They acknowledge that historians often spend long hours in dusty archives, painstakingly poring over documents in order to discover the truth. But if interpreting history involves endless digging in archives, why should we want students to do be able to do that?

On the other hand, other people notice that different historians write radically different accounts of the same events. There are some things about the past that either happened or didn't happen, of course. But these are just isolated facts, which are never enough to determine whether the story should be an optimistic or a pessimistic one, for example. So they conclude that historians always force the facts to fit whatever kind of story they want to tell. But if interpreting history means imposing a subjective story on the past, again, why should we want students to be able to do that?

In my research, I defend an alternative view. But rather than studying what particular historians or students do, I present philosophical arguments about the conceptual foundations of history. I show that, on the one hand, it is true that historians always approach their research with certain preconceptions. For example, they must have preconceptions about what events are important in a particular period, about what kinds of evidence they are looking for, or indeed about the overall plot structure of the story. But on the other hand, it is also true that those preconceptions sometimes change when confronted with contradictory evidence. This is why interpretive judgments are not merely subjective.

According to this conception of historical interpretation, it makes sense that, indeed, students should be interpreters of history. Students, just like professionals, always come to their subject with certain preconceptions, even in areas about which they know quite little. So, as they engage with the material - encountering new sources or other accounts - they continually re-interpret and re-compose their own stories about the past. Professionals work with a much more specialized focus, of course. And professionals are typically better interpreters than students are. Fundamentally, however, they are both engaged in the same process of interpretation.

Of course, there is one very significant difference: someone else, a teacher, is in charge of guiding students' interpretive experiences. So this conception contributes to history education by helping us think about what we teach (curriculum) as well as how we teach (pedagogy). We should abandon the idea of 'covering' a period of history or conveying masses of information. Instead, we first need to understand the preconceptions with which students arrive in the classroom, and then determine what kinds of classroom experiences are likely to foster more comprehensive and more responsible interpretations. And most importantly, this conception helps us think about the deepest goal of history education: nurturing the capabilities that make students, like professionals, responsible interpreters of history. As I develop this argument, I call these traits the "interpretive virtues;" the term indicates that they are personal qualities rather than mere academic skills. Thus, history courses can help develop the interpretive virtues by providing the right kinds of interpretive experiences, but these virtues can also be applied, then, to many areas of life.