Imagination: A Study in the History of Ideas

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Contrast this with Jim, an eighth grader, who can see that sources must be interrogated if we are to say anything about the past. The recognition that someone writing a long time after an event has occurred is not in as good a position to know about it as someone writing at the time is useful as a broad principle.

The danger is that students will mistakenly generalize the principle to historians, as if their histories were also reports from the past rather than attempts to construct pictures of the past on the basis of evidence. This misconception is all the easier to fall into. Jim makes the point that reports can be damaged in transmission over time, and shows he is aware that we must weigh how far we can trust reports about the past. However, he also distinguishes the value of a source as a report of what happened from its value as a means of shedding light on a different kind of question—how people saw what happened.

History is made from ideas — but are ideas becoming history? | Spectator USA

He is beginning to show signs of recognizing that we can ask questions about the past that the sources we have were not meant to answer. In any case, the distinction is a difficult one, and presupposes that students already understand it is the questions we decide to ask that determine whether something is a primary or a secondary source. Much the same sort of. A crucial step for students in shedding everyday preconceptions and making real headway in understanding historical evidence is therefore to replace the idea that we are dependent on reports with the idea that we can construct a picture of the past by inference.

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Historians are not simply forced to choose between two reports, but can work out their own picture, which may differ from both. What matters is the question we are asking.

Gibbon and Turner were not reporting anything about the beliefs and values of their time, but historians may use what they said and other evidence to produce an account of those beliefs and values. Jim, in Box , shows signs of thinking like this when he says you have to remember what you want to find out from any piece of evidence you are using.

Once students understand two parallel distinctions—between relic and record and between intentional and unintentional evidence—they can escape from the trap set by some of their everyday preconceptions. A record is a source that intends to tell us, or someone else, something about some event, process, or state of affairs. Relics are sources that were not intended to tell us what happened, or sources that are used by an investigator to answer a particular question in ways that do not depend on what they intend to report but on what they were part of.

Even deliberate reports of the past can be used to answer questions in this way when we do not ask about what they meant to report, but what they show about the activity of which they were a part.

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Common sense dictates that claims must be backed up , so students understandably look for evidence that does this: the more, the better. This is perfectly acceptable, but students also need to understand that however much evidence they gather in support of a claim, one piece can be enough to refute it. Learning to try to disconfirm claims may be difficult initially, but disconfirmation can be a highly efficient strategy in the face of a multiplicity of claims.

The concept of a historical account is related to that of evidence. Whereas with evidence the focus tends to be on the establishment of particular facts, with accounts we are more concerned with how students view historical narratives or representations of whole passages of the past.


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As a first move in distinguishing between true stories and fiction, this idea is reasonable enough, but as a characterization of a true story, it will not stand up even in everyday life. All the component singular factual statements in an account may be true, but the meaning of the account may still be highly contestable.

The meaning of a story is more than the sum of its parts. In history this point is of great importance, as the following account demonstrates. In Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany. In elections held soon after he became chancellor, he won a massive majority of the votes. Pictures taken during his chancellorship suggest his popularity with the German people. He presided over an increasingly prosperous nation.

A treaty signed with France in enabled Hitler to organize defenses for Germany along the Channel coast, and for a time Germany was the most militarily secure power in Europe. Hitler expressed on many occasions his desire to live peacefully with the rest of Europe, but in Germany was invaded from all sides by Britain, the United States, and the Soviet Union.

Unable to defeat this invasion of his homeland by superior numbers, Hitler took his own life as the invading Russian armies devastated Berlin. He is still regarded as one of the most important and significant figures of the twentieth century. Given that its title indicates a general survey of what is important about Hitler and his political career, the most obvious defect is the omission of clearly germane material that would give a different implicit meaning to the story.

Moreover, what is said carries implications that would normally be specifically ruled out if they did not hold. If we are told that a politician won a massive majority, this normally means that voters had choices and were not under duress. The point of saying, without qualification, that someone has expressed a desire to live at peace is that it shows.

The account puts matters in ways that would normally suggest certain relationships, but in this case the relationships are highly questionable. Students tend to deal with the problem that true statements do not guarantee acceptable historical accounts by using concepts employed in everyday life.

If accounts are not clearly and unambiguously true or untrue, they must be matters of opinion. This view carries with it the idea that it is impossible to choose between conflicting accounts and, for some students, the idea that therefore anything goes. History is reduced to an arena in which opinions are freely exercised, like dogs in the park. Another preconception that can cause difficulties for students is the idea that a true account is a copy of the past rather than something more like a picture, or better still, a theory.

If students think true stories are copies of the past, there will obviously be a problem when different stories exist. One way students explain this is by saying that different stories must arise when historians make mistakes. Another explanation is that part of the story has not been found. It is as if stories lie hidden like mosaics buried beneath the sands, waiting to be uncovered, but when historians sweep aside the sand, they find that some pieces are missing. Either way, the view is that historians do not know the real story see Box This approach makes sense for everyday clashes between two people with clear interests in some practical outcome Who started the fight?

Such ideas will cause difficulties for students until they can see that stories are not so much copies of the past as ways of looking at it. The key notion here is that stories order and make sense of the past; they do not reproduce it. All this means that accounts demand selection, and therefore a position from which selection is made.

A point of view is not merely legitimate but necessary; perspective-free accounts are not possible. Research suggests that some students already understand this point by the end of eighth grade. What are the accounts claiming to tell us? What questions are they asking?

The Historical Imagination

Are they dealing with the same themes? Are they covering the same time span? Second-order, disciplinary concepts such as change and evidence , discussed above, are involved in any history, whatever the content. Other concepts, such as trade, nation, sachem, protestant, slave, treaty , or president , are encountered in dealing with particular kinds of historical content.

David Hume: Imagination

Such concepts belong to many different kinds of human activity—economic, political, social, and cultural. They are numerous and fit together in many different ways, which makes it difficult to form a coherent picture of student presuppositions about these concepts. As teachers, however, we tend to be much more aware of the substantive preconceptions students bring to lessons than of their disciplinary ideas. Concepts are not the same as names and dates.


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  • It is important to remember that understanding concepts—such as colony, market , or migration —involves knowing a rule what makes something a migration, for example and being able to identify instances of that rule. The substantive concepts we encounter in history can come from any walk of life or any discipline, but each denotes a cluster of kinds of things in the world.

    Names and dates are not like this; they are particulars that students must know about as individual items.

    Moreover, names are not limited to people. Some denote particular things, such as the Constitution, or France, or Wounded Knee.

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    Some, like the American Revolution, denote a cluster of events and processes not because they are one kind of thing, but because they make up a greater whole to which we wish to assign a name. Of course, constitution is a concept that we want students to understand and apply across a range of cases, but the Constitution is the name of one particular case. Similarly while revolution is a general concept, the American Revolution is the name of a particular instance, although in this case exactly what it denotes can be disputed.