My research at the moment involves trying to identify and characterise the language academic historians use so that it might be explicitly taught to pupils. Consequently, I am particularly interested in the literacy displays or language mats I periodically see on social media or resource-marketplace websites that claim to be providing the ‘language of the historian’ or ‘how historians write’. I occasionally feel that such resources are at best inappropriately labelled because they sometimes include language that is directly antithetical to how most academic historians argue in writing. In this post I want to concentrate on the following ‘sentence starters’;[i]
I believe that…
I think that…
In my opinion…
Let me begin by outlining what I consider to be two essential and interrelated characteristics of historical writing based on theories of history.
1) As Fischer noted historical writing ‘always is articulated in the form of a reasoned argument’.[ii]
2) As Megill stated by definition a historical argument only exists when substantiated by evidence.[iii]
Most historians rarely use the ‘sentence starters’ above when referring to their own arguments because they directly contradict these essential characteristics of the historical epistemology. First, as Jordanova pointed out, ‘‘opinion’ is used when we want to draw attention to what a particular person thinks, without any particularly strong evidentiary base to back it up. Hence to call any bit of historical knowledge an opinion implies that it is not well-grounded, a merely personal view’.[iv] Second, ‘belief’ also has similar connotations. Consider the verb’s collocations in everyday language: people believe in Father Christmas, aliens or ghosts. The verb ‘believe’ is required here because there is no evidence to verify their existence.
Third, ‘belief’ is doubly problematical because in historical discourse it is often used synonymously with ‘ideology’. Most historians are often wary of the intrusion of belief/ideology into their peers’ arguments because it might lead to a scholar deliberately ignoring or distorting evidence in the furtherance of a particular presentist agenda.[v] This tendency also betrays the historical epistemology because, as Fulbrook noted, ‘historical knowledge is of a different order from that of fiction, myth and ideology’.[vi]
So, the majority of academic historians rarely introduce their arguments with these sentence starters because it might insinuate that, historically speaking, what they are arguing is fundamentally defective. In fact, when historians in the historiography Nazism do use these phrases it is often when they are negatively evaluating a peer’s work. This evaluation is usually based on the criterion that the historian being reviewed has failed to sufficiently substantiate their claims. For example;
Mason thought he could detect clear signs, among these ordinary workers of ‘opposition’; if not political ‘resistance’, to the (Nazi) regime…Recent research has, however, begun to offer a different picture of the effects of economics upon working-class consciousness and behaviour during the 1930s.[vii]
This extract indicates that, in David Crew’s view, Timothy Mason made an overbold claim from the available evidence regarding the extent of workers’ immunity to Nazi indoctrination which has since been debunked by more recent research. Because the known evidence, according to Crew, now contradicts Mason’s assertion it can only qualify for the lesser classification of ‘thought’ instead of ‘argument’. Similarly;
By supporting this opinion with a questionable ‘primary source’ – the second-hand word of an anonymous Nazi doctor – Bock portrays women as complete victims and German men as either pseudo-victims or the primary perpetrators of Nazi terror.[viii]
Here, David Guba dismissed Gisela Bock’s claim as an ‘opinion’ due to her perceived questionable use of primary sources which, in Guba’s view, undermined her attempted argument.
Also consider Gavriel Rosenfeld’s negative evaluation of William Shirer’s The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich;[ix]
From the outset of his book, Shirer made abundantly clear his belief that ‘Nazism and the Third Reich . . . were but a logical continuation of German history’…This was, to be sure, hardly a novel argument. Indeed, it marked a reversion to the notorious ‘Luther to Hitler’ view of German history, an overdrawn, deterministic perspective that was commonly espoused during the 1930s and 1940s.[x]
Rosenfeld criticised Shirer’s interpretative framework because, according to Rosenfeld, it led to Shirer reaching ‘overdrawn’ conclusions relative to the evidence. Furthermore, Rosenfeld went on to summarise how one of the main criticisms of Shirer’s work was that it was a thinly-veiled rehash of the tropes of Allied propaganda during and immediately after World War Two that claimed that Germans had become incorrigibly anti-democratic and militaristic at some point in their distant past. This ‘Vansittartist’ propaganda was partly designed to justify Allied reprisals, denazification and democratising initiatives in Germany immediately after the collapse of the Third Reich.[xi] This association of Shirer’s argument with propaganda helps explain why The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich was ‘bitterly attacked’ by West German critics for ‘being barely of elementary school sophistication’ and ‘distorting history’.[xii] Rosenfeld’s choice of the noun ‘belief’ might indicate here his subscription to the widely-held view that Shirer’s work was overly-driven by a political a priori thesis at the expense of misrepresenting the known evidence.
As I hope these examples have shown, a strange type of cognitive dissonance has developed in some secondary school history departments. Some pupils have been told that using ‘sentence starters’ such as ‘I believe’ to introduce their own arguments ‘is how historians write’, yet reading most works of academic history reveals that this is hardly ever the case.
I am not necessarily saying that all writing frames are bad. Nor am I suggesting that we should expect Year 7s to immediately write like Crew, Guba or Rosenfeld. I do want to offer two thoughts however. First, I want to preempt the potential ‘but-pupils-can’t-run-before-they-can-walk’ counter-argument. In my view the use of frames such as ‘I believe’ reflects an essentially faulty notion of progress. I have yet to see a convincing argument as to why drilling pupils with ‘sentence starters’ that are unhistorical in their early schooling is a necessary or even desirable step in pupils progressing to the construction of increasingly sophisticated historical written arguments later on.
The second thought might appear obvious. Words matter. Historians don’t select the words they use from the ether. Instead, the historian’s language often manifests tacit and commonly-held assumptions about what history is and how history works. It is for this simple reason that careful thought needs to be given by the teacher to the linguistic scaffolds they choose to give to their pupils. To take the example discussed above, in the ‘fake news’ era we might consider the repercussions of fundamentally misrepresenting the discipline to younger pupils. The conflation of the meanings of ‘opinion’, ‘belief’ and ‘argument’ might be why it is difficult to disabuse many pupils before they finish their compulsory history education of the flawed notion that, ultimately, there are ‘no wrong answers’ in history. It is perhaps not surprising that pupils develop this impression that ‘opinion’ and evidence-based argument are of the same essential order if they are explicitly and misleadingly told that ‘this is how historians write’.
[i] What follows is a critique of common sentence starters that I have either a) used myself or seen being used in my practice or b) seen shared on social media or sold on resource websites. I have not included images or links of the specific examples because I do not want to personalise any critique.
[ii] Fischer, D. H. (1970). Historians’ Fallacies: Toward a Logic of Historical Thought. New York: Harper Collins. p. xv
[iii] Megill, A. (2007). Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The University of Chicago Press: London pp.6-7
[iv] The best summary of this distinction between opinion and historical knowledge I have found so far is from Jordanova, L. (2000). History in Practice. London: Arnold. pp.111-112 . Here is the whole extract: ‘It is often easiest to be precise about a concept by considering its opposites. The key concept in this chapter has been ‘historical knowledge’, so it may be worth considering what is not taken to be historical knowledge. Three terms are relevant here: opinion, ideology, and myth. ‘Opinion’ is used when we want to draw attention to what a particular person thinks, without any particularly strong evidentiary base to back it up. Hence to call any bit of historical knowledge an opinion implies that it is not well-grounded, a merely personal view. To call it ‘ideology’ is to make a somewhat different point, namely that it was driven by some prior commitment, such as a strongly held belief best understood as political, although here too a claim is being made about evidence. In the case of ideology, the evidence may well be there, but the charge is that it is being distorted or ignored because of the historian’s deepest assumptions’.
[vi] Fulbrook, M. (2007). Historical Theory. London: Routledge p.196
[vii] Crew, D. (1995). General Introduction. In Crew, D. (Ed.) Nazism and German Society 1933-45 (pp.1-37) London: Routledge pp.2-3
[viii] Guba, J. D. A. (2009). ‘Women in Nazi Germany: Victims, Perpetrators, and the Abandonment of a Paradigm’. CONCEPT 33.
[ix] William L. Shirer (1960). The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich New York: Simon and Schuster
[x] Rosenfeld, G. D. (1999). ‘The Controversy That Isn’t: The Debate over Daniel J. Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners” in Comparative Perspective’. Contemporary European History 8(2) pp.251-252
[xi] Hoenicke Moore, M. (2003). American Interpretations of National Socialism. In Rogers, D. & Steinweis, A. E. (Eds.) The Impact of Nazism: New Perspectives on the Third Reich and Its Legacy (pp.1-18) Lincoln: Nebraska University Press. pp.12-15
[xii] Rosenfeld op. cit. pp.251-252