Duplo to watercolours: how the substantive might shape the disciplinary in students’ historical causal arguments

In a previous post, I argued that writing frames might be more effective when the teacher is clear regarding the particular historical second-order concept they want their students to focus on. For example, it might be beneficial to be precise about whether one is concentrating on the specific language of historical causation rather than more generic ‘explaining’ language associated more broadly with ‘making clear’, ‘explication’, or ‘elucidation’.  While it is clearly useful for students to be comfortable using connectives such as ‘also’ and ‘however’, these frames recommended by centralised initiatives such as the National Strategies for Literacy in History might only get students so far in constructing historical arguments distinct from those in science, geography, or indeed any other ‘non-fiction genre’.[i]

In writing that post, I was very deliberately trying to operate in a rich tradition of previous history-teacher curricular theorisation. As I discussed here, a number of history teachers in England from the mid-2000s became (either consciously or unconsciously) dissatisfied with generic writing frames that were falsely advertised as the language of historical argument.[ii] Instead, a number of these teachers adopted history’s second-order concepts as an investigative framework for their theorisation regarding language instruction. Teachers such as Woodcock (causation);[iii] Foster (change and continuity);[iv] Bradshaw (similarity and difference);[v] and many others began to identify the specific language students might require in order to respond in writing to the type of questions historians, by disciplinary convention, tend to argue about.

My current research involves trying to identify the language of causation that historians use in their arguments so that I might explicitly teach it to my students. While thus far I have been specifically focusing on the historiography of one particular topic (the Salem witch trials of 1692), I have found certain ‘chunks’ of causal language that I think might be generally applicable in causal arguments across history generally (see below). Similarly, I have also identified language regarding characterisation of causes (e.g. ‘precondition’[vi]); explanation of multicausality (e.g. ‘a perfect storm of factors’[vii]); or prioritisation of causes (e.g. ‘most of important of all’[viii]) that might also be transferable in this way.

Word grid causes

Any of this kind of subject-wide yet conceptually-precise language that historians use is, in my view, extremely useful for students to learn. But it is important to remember another reason why history teachers such as those I mentioned above began to move away from resources such as the National Strategies for Literacy.  Writing frames shorn from the specific context of a legitimate historical enquiry can lead to a marginalisation of the shaping effect particular substantive topics might have on historical arguments.[ix] Just as the teacher needs to consider the distinction between the generic and the historical, similarly they might need to consider the particulars of the higher-resolution of historical topics. For instance, the uncritical use of language mats – even if they are specific to a particular second-order concept such as causation – might lead to the teacher inadvertently deemphasising disciplinary language specifically valuable to causal enquiries on particular topics such as the Salem witch craze.

Let’s take a hypothetical example. Citing instances such as Elizabeth Knapp in Groton in 1672; the Goodwin children in Boston in 1688; and Kate Branch in Stamford in 1692; many historians of Salem have noted that while children and young adults suffering afflictions and making accusations of witchcraft in 17th century New England was unusual, it certainly was not unheard of either. Yet none of these other cases escalated into a full-blown witch hunt. One cause that distinguished Salem in 1692 was that powerful male figures such as the girls’ guardians (e.g. Samuel Parris and Thomas Putnam); examining magistrates (e.g. John Hathorne and Jonathan Corwin); and presiding judges (e.g. William Stoughton) were willing to give the Salem girls’ accusations an unusually high amount of credibility.

In explaining the importance of these men’s role, a student relying solely on history-wide causal language such as the chunks I displayed above might write something like this;

Puritan leaders were worried that people in New England were becoming less devout which led to powerful male leaders in Massachusetts looking for scapegoats. Consequently, these leaders’ anxiety meant they were willing to listen to the girls’ accusations which caused the Salem witch hunt.

This example is, I think, fine. But how might we improve it? In my view, it has a certain artificiality because it is a manifestation of a type of ‘Duplo’ approach to constructing historical argument. First, take a substantive ‘fact’ block. Then slot in a general disciplinary ‘causal language’ block next to it. Repeat. Hey presto! We have a causal argument (see below).

Duplo

Recently, a number of history teachers have begun to consider how a strong command of substantive knowledge manifests itself in students’ historical arguments. For example, in an already-seminal article Hammond discussed how strong substantive knowledge ‘flavoured’ her students’ historical claims.[x] In this vein, I’ve been looking at the historiography of Salem to see possible examples of how historians’ substantive knowledge ‘flavours’ their choice of disciplinary language so that I might be able to model it for my students. Consider the following example from Enders A. Robinson;

At the strategic level, the old-guard Puritans granted the authority under which the conspiracies operated. The beginning of 1692 saw the old guard running an outlaw government in New England, these men were the councillors, magistrates, judges, and high military officers. Only the old guard had sufficient authority to sanction the atrocities of the witch hunt.[xi]

Note Robinson’s choice of ‘granted authority’ and ‘sanctioned’ instead of, for instance, ‘resulted in’ or ‘led to’. We can find many other historians using similar verbs and nouns when explaining the Puritan old-guard’s role in the Salem witch hunt: ‘gave credence’;[xii] ‘gave (their) seal of approval’;[xiii] ‘affirmed’;[xiv] ‘endorsement’;[xv] ‘gave (their) solid backing’;[xvi] ‘lent their weight to’;[xvii] ‘gatekeeper’;[xviii] ‘put their weight behind’;[xix] ‘advocate’;[xx] or ‘gave the green light’.[xxi] In this particular context, this language is all clearly causal despite the fact that such nouns and verbs might not necessarily make sense in causal arguments in other historical topics. This lack of transferability is because this causal language is particularly ‘flavoured’ by substantive knowledge of the societal power structures of the late-17th century Puritan New England patriarchy. The girls’ accusations could not have led anywhere unless these powerful men had validated them. That potentially ‘flavoured’ argument, however, is shut down by the exclusive use of ‘flavourless’ language such as ‘due to’, ‘meant’, or ‘brought about’.

(Sidenote. The fact that historians often ‘hide the analytical ductwork’[xxii] by opting to use topic-specific causal verbs and nouns rather than overt and general ‘analytical’ language such as ‘led to’ might be one reason why academic history can often read as if it is narrative/descriptive while at the same time being highly explanatory and analytical).

So unlike the ‘Duplo’ model authentic historical writing is often more like working with two watercolour paints and sometimes failing to stay within the lines. To varying degrees, the colours often bleed into one another (see below);

Watercolour

In terms of planning, this enquiry specificity might have at least two ramifications for history teachers. First, a teacher can’t necessarily assume the language mats or word grids one might see on social media, in examination board guidance, or teacher-resource marketplaces can be treated as ‘off-the-peg’.[xxiii] The ones I have designed, for instance, were very deliberately created with particular enquiries in mind.[xxiv] But what may have worked effectively for my students arguing why the Nazis rose to power will not automatically be suitable for another teacher’s students explaining why William won the Battle of Hastings. The substantive content of one might shape the disciplinary in ways that would be inappropriate for the other. Instead, the teacher must use their professional judgement to use, adapt, or discard as required.

Ultimately, no language mat in itself can ever be a panacea. In fact, as previous history teachers have persuasively demonstrated grids might only be of limited use unless situated in the context of an enquiry that makes clear the disciplinary and substantive knowledge that sits behind such language’s use. Like any proxy, unless the rationale for its construction is understood any potential effectiveness will almost certainly be lost in transit.

Furthermore, teachers might also consider highlighting a small number of specific verbs or nouns especially relevant to the causes students will encounter in that enquiry that historians have used in their interpretations. Such language might make students move away from ‘Duplo’ writing toward authentic academic argument. It could also highlight to students the subtle interpretative choices historians make. But it might also serve to reinforce the substantive knowledge the students are required to know. Playing around with deceptively simple language such as ‘gave the green light to’, for example, might provide another access point to students struggling to grasp the notion of the Puritan old-guard’s gatekeeping role in this type of society.  In this sense, might not the linguistic also release the substantive?

A final thought. Language mats run the risk of encouraging students to visualise conceptual thinking as a ‘process’ or ‘skill’.[xxv] It might be all too easy for a student to think that when they encounter a new topic all they need do to answer a causal question is reach for their trusty toolbox, grab the appropriate ‘tool’ (i.e. the language mat), and apply the same repeatable, tried-and-tested processes for explaining why things happened in history. Such approaches, however, might lead the student to believe that historical substantive content is free-floating, inert information that does not affect the disciplinary; essentially another interchangeable slab students just need to set to work on. But this is not how historical argument always works. In reality, the disciplinary and the substantive often do not operate in discrete silos. Disciplinary conventions and unique substantive content meet, mesh, and modify one another in in order to construct historical knowledge.


[i] Department for Education and Skills. (2002). Key stage 3 national strategy – literacy in history. London: DfEaS p.vi & 21 Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2379/7/sec_lit_hi_004602_Redacted.pdf

[ii] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From divergent evolution to witting cross-fertilisation: the need for more awareness of potential inter-discursive communication regarding students’ extended historical writing’ The Curriculum Journal 28(4) pp.504-523

[iii] Woodcock, J. (2005). ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ Teaching History 119, pp. 5-14.

[iv] Foster, R. (2013). ‘The more things change, the more they stay the same: Developing students’ thinking about change and continuity’. Teaching History 151, pp. 8–16.

[v] Bradshaw, M. (2009). ‘Drilling down: How one history department is working towards progression in pupils’ thinking about diversity across Years 7, 8 and 9’. Teaching History, 135, pp. 4–12.

[vi] Baker, E. W. (2015). A Storm of Witchcraft: The Salem Trials and the American Experience. Oxford: Oxford University Press pp.123-125

[vii] Ray, B. C. (2015). Satan and Salem: The Witch-Hunt Crisis of 1692. London: University of Virginia Press p.5

[viii] Hansen, C. (1988). Witchcraft at Salem. London: Arrow Books. pp.145-146

[ix]Counsell, C. (2011a). History teachers as curriculum makers: professional problem-solving in secondary school history in England. In Schüllerqvist, B. (Ed.) Patterns of Research in Civics, History, Geography and Religious Education (pp.53-88). Kalrstad: Kalrstad University Press.

[x] Hammond, K. (2014). ‘The knowledge that ‘flavours’ a claim: Towards building and assessing historical knowledge on three scales’. Teaching History 157: Assessment, pp. 18–25.

[xi] Robinson, E. A. (1991). The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. New York: Hippocrene Books.p.252

[xii] Hill, F (1996). A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. London: Penguin p.69

[xiii] Ibid

[xiv] Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp.6-7

[xv] Ray op. cit. pp.46-47

[xvi] Ibid.

[xvii] Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf pp.306-308

[xviii] Ibid. p.72

[xix] Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem witchcraft trials. John Hopkins University Press: London.  p.103

[xx] Ray op. cit. pp.144-145

[xxi] Baker op. cit. p.30

[xxii] Lee, P. & Shemilt, D. (2009). ‘Is any explanation better than none? Over-determined narratives, senseless agencies and one-way streets in students’ learning about cause and consequence in history’ Teaching History 137, 42-49.

[xxiii] For example, one exam board has – without my permission, without crediting me, and without linking the article from which the resource came from – disseminated one of my resources suggesting that my language mat is applicable across topics when answering GCSE questions in the narrative mode. The resource was, in fact, not designed for this purpose at all. It was designed for causal A-Level arguments in the explanatory mode for students studying the Nazi rise to power. The resource, therefore, will likely be only of limited use for what the exam board claims.

[xxiv]  For example Carroll, J.E. (2016) ‘The whole point of the thing: how nominalisation might develop students’ written causal arguments’ Teaching History 162 pp. 16-24

[xxv] Both Counsell and Lee have discussed dangers of this tendency e.g. Counsell, C. (2000) Historical knowledge and historical skill: the distracting dichotomy. In Issues in History Teaching ed. J. Arthur and R. Phillips, 54-71. Abingdon: Routledge; Counsell (2011) op.cit.; Lee, P. (2005) Putting principles into practice: understanding history. In How Pupils Learn: History in the classroom, ed. M. S. Donovan and J. D. Bransford, 31-78. Washington DC: National Academies Press; Lee, P. (2011) History education and historical literacy. In Debates in history teaching, ed. I. Davies, 63-72. London: Routledge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

‘Another reason why…’ some writing frames stunt students’ historical causal arguments

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In a series of previous posts, I have argued that history teachers portraying sentence starters such as ‘I believe…’ and ‘explaining’ connectives such as ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ as ‘the language of the historian’ is misleading. I tried to demonstrate how, far from being ‘how historians write’, such frames at best limit students’ scope to construct their own historical arguments. At worst, some might be fundamentally anti-historical.

Continuing this theme, in this post I want to consider ‘paragraph starters’ such as;

‘One reason why…’

‘Another reason why…’

‘A final reason why…’[i]

By including ‘reason why’ these starters seem most appropriate for arguments constructed in response to questions focused on the second-order concept of causation. Presumably, they could be tweaked to be applicable to other conceptual focuses; perhaps ‘Another reason why Cromwell was significant was…’ for significance or ‘A final difference between the nobility and the gentry was…’ for similarity and difference.  For now, however, let us assume that in these frames ‘reason’ operates synonymously with ‘cause’. An example of a causal question that the frames might be used in response to could be;

How far does the role of Governor Phips explain the end of the Salem witch hunt (1692–93)? [ii]

In this question, the student would first be expected to recognise the cause given and argue its relative importance. For example, they might consider how upon returning from fighting the Wabanakis on the frontier in September 1692 Phips closed the Court of Oyer and Terminer which had admitted spectral evidence contributing to a 100% conviction rate. Phips then established the new Superior Court of Judicature in its place which did not admit this type of evidence and therefore predominantly acquitted.

The students would then be required to argue whether other causes which contributed to the craze subsiding were more or less important. Although it is an interpretation which has been rather debunked by more recent research, a traditional cause given for the hunt coming to an end was the ‘afflicted’ girls’ ‘overreaching’: their accusing of those in positions of power including, perhaps, Phips’ own wife. Fearing that the girls might now turn their ferocity on them, powerful male societal gatekeepers removed their endorsement of the girls’ claims. In this staunchly patriarchal society, the girls’ accusations ceased to carry weight once shorn of this legitimation.

A further cause the students might include in their explanatory arguments could be the increasingly loud and convincing campaign led by more moderate and influential Puritan ministers – most famously Increase Mather. From the comparative safety of Boston, men such as Mather began to publicise arguments against the admission of spectral evidence helping to convince Phips, who was a member of Mather’s congregation, to change tack.

For our purposes here, let us limit ourselves to these three causes of the end of the hunt. Teachers might instruct students to adopt the following essay structure;

Introduction

One reason why the Salem witch hunt ended in 1693 was…the intervention of Governor Phips…

Another reason why the Salem witch hunt ended in 1693 was…the ‘afflicted’ girls’ ‘overreaching’…

A final reason why the Salem witch hunt ended in 1693 was… influential figures in Boston criticising the admission of spectral evidence…

Conclusion

These frames are an example, I think, of how Australian genre theory has influenced literacy instruction in English secondary schools – albeit often in a bowdlerised, indirect, and uncredited way.[iii] At the very least, these scaffolds seem to have evolved in parallel to some genre theorists’ strikingly similar recommendations.  Such suggestions include students starting paragraphs in ‘categorical explanations’ with ‘numeratives’ and a clear ‘hyper-theme’ such as ‘A second reason was (insert cause here)’.[iv] The rationale for such modelling is that it highlights for students the engendering or creation of cohesion and structure in texts.

Encouraging students to structure their extended writing coherently is clearly a laudable aim and I am not suggesting that some scaffolding, used judiciously, should not be used to this end. I do think, however, that there is an issue with these particular frames which seem at best only generically applicable to explanation in all ‘non-fiction’ writing. They present historical explanation as of essentially the same order as explanations in other disciplines where there might not be the same disciplinary conventions demanding one argues the relative importance of causes. Such frames, for example, might be perfectly appropriate for reporting why fires burn: ‘One reason is a source of heat…’. ‘Another reason is fuel…’.  ‘A final reason is the presence oxygen…’. What matters in the fire example is that all of these causes are necessary in combination, not whether one is more important than the other.

But in a historical causal explanation a lack of attentiveness to the specifics of the discipline, reified in frames such as ‘another reason why was the girls’ overreaching…’, will almost always have a deadening effect. What most historians care about are problems such as whether the girls’ overreaching was more important than Phips’ return or not.

It is accepted by many historians that the main driver of a causal argument is the prioritisation of causes in terms of relative significance into some form of ‘pecking order’[v] or ‘hierarchy’[vi]. In doing so, these historians suggest one should aim to argue what the most important cause was. Carr perhaps most forcibly encapsulated this view regarding the typifying characteristic of historical causation;

The true historian, confronted with this list of causes of his own compiling, would feel a professional compulsion to reduce it to order, to establish some hierarchy of causes, which would fix their relation to one another, perhaps to decide which cause, or which category of causes, should be regarded ‘in the last resort’ or ‘in the final analysis’ (favourite phrases of historians) as the ultimate cause, the cause of all causes. This is his interpretation of his theme; the historian is known by the causes which he invokes…every historical argument revolves round the question of priority of causes.’[vii]

According to historians such as Hewitson, without such ‘ordering of ‘causes’ according to their salience or significance in respect to the question posed’ causal argument ‘itself would not be possible’. [viii]

If we accept this then while ‘another reason’ provides structural coherence it is completely stultifying to causal historical argument. In this sense I see starters such as ‘another reason why’ as a stark manifestation of a dangerous mentality that tends to view ‘the literacy’ as ‘a skill’ somehow disconnected from ‘the history’.[ix] In this instance, the desire to emphasise the importance of structure (‘the literacy’) might disable students from arguing the relative importance of causes (‘the history’). In particular, the frames might blinker the student from the fact that some historians a) use explicit language to argue the relative importance of causes and b) might rhetorically organise their overall text in such a way as to perpetuate their overall causal arguments.

Let us return to our example of the Salem witch craze’s loss of impetus. Historians in this historiography have often displayed the ‘professional compulsion’ described by Carr to prioritise their causes. For example, after outlining and explaining the role of less important causes Chadwick Hansen emphasised that, in his view, the girls’ ‘overreaching’ was the most important cause in the craze ultimately fizzling out;

But most important of all, as the witch hunt spread and the accusations flew, people were accused whom nobody could think guilty.[x]

Here, Hansen emphasised his argument by building toward the most important cause and indicating it clearly. A historian might structure their overall writing this way, perhaps beginning by arguing the limitations of existing arguments and thus preparing the reader for the clear statement and elaboration of the historian’s main thesis regarding the most important cause.

Frances Hill instead opted to emphasise what, from her perspective, was most crucial in ending the craze (the campaign in Boston against the Court of Oyer and Terminer’s admission of spectral evidence led by Increase Mather) by leading with the most important cause.

A huge backlash ended the witch-hunt. The single most important element in that backlash was an essay composed by Cotton Mather’s father, Increase called Cases of Conscience Concerning Evil Spirits Personating Men.[xi]

As both these examples show when arguing the relative importance of causes historians in the historiography of Salem might use the organisation of their text as an argumentative tool. Some also use clear language to indicate their overall argument in this regard. Both of these possible articulations of argument are shut down by prescribed essay structures based on starters such as ‘another reason why…’ which either imply the causes are of equal importance or even worse still might suggest to the student that prioritisation is not required at all.

I have been trying to identify the specific language historians of Salem such as Hansen and Hill use in their causal arguments. I select particularly argumentative extended extracts to read with my class and then I model the authentic language the historian used. Below you can see some of the ‘chunks’ I have identified so far.[xii] Chunks such as these might be used to encourage students to think about the prioritisation of causes and how to articulate this argument at the paragraph- and overall essay-level.

The key here though is that ‘the literacy’ is not a bolt-on. First, the language is introduced in the context of a wider causal enquiry and read in its original argumentative context so the students can see it in its natural habitat. (That is why the chunks below should not be considered an ‘off-the-peg’ resource because students studying other historiographies would be denied the opportunity to see how the historian actually deployed them.) Second, the teaching of language itself might make concrete to students that prioritisation is the driver of historical causal argument.[xiii]  Ultimately, the history teacher needs to continuously reflect on the possible ramifications of teaching literacy as an isolated ‘skill’.[xiv]  Otherwise, we might condemn students to procrustean structures that ignore the historical epistemology and contort, butcher, or kill students’ arguments.

Picture1

 


[i] What follows is a critique of common sentence starters that I have either a) used 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] Pearson, Edexcel (2017). Advanced Level 3 GCE History, Paper 3: Theme in breadth with aspects in depth, Option 33: The Witchcraze in Britain, Europe and North America c.1580-c.1750 9H10/33 retrieved from https://secure.qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/secure/silver/all-uk-and-international/a-level/history/2015/exam-materials/9HI0_33_que_20170623.pdf

[iii]Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From divergent evolution to witting cross-fertilisation: the need for more awareness of potential inter-discursive communication regarding students’ extended historical writing’ The Curriculum Journal 28(4) pp.504-523

[iv] See, for example, Coffin, C. (2006). Historical Discourse: The Language of Time, Cause and Causation London: Continuum. p.126; Martin, J. R. (1992). English Text. System and Structure Philapdelphia, PA: Benjamins pp.454-456

[v] For example Counsell discussed the dangers of ‘bolting on’ literacy Counsell, C. (2004). Building the lesson around the text, history and literacy in year 7. London: Hodder Education p.4

[vi] Tosh, J. (2006). The Pursuit of History: Aims, methods and new directions in the study of modern history London: Pearson p.154

[vii] Evans R. J. (1997).  In Defence of History. London: Granta Books. P.158

[viii] Carr E. H. (1990). What is History? London: Penguin pp.89-90

[ix] Hewitson M. (2015). History and Causality. London: Palgrave Macmillan. p.161

[x] Hansen, C. (1988). Witchcraft at Salem. London: Arrow Books. pp.145-146

[xi] Hill, F (1996). A Delusion of Satan: The Full Story of the Salem Witch Trials. London: Penguin.pp.195-196

[xii]I describe this approach in far more depth here  Carroll, J.E. (2016) ‘The whole point of the thing: how nominalisation might develop students’ written causal arguments’ Teaching History 162 pp. 16-24

[xiii] This is essentially James Woodcock’s idea. See Woodcock, J. (2005). ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ Teaching History 119, 5-14.

[xiv]  See, for example, Evans, J. and Pate, G. (2007). ‘Does scaffolding make them fall? Reflecting on strategies for developing causal argument in Years 8 and 11’ Teaching History 128, 18-28.

 

Don’t you think we deserve an explanation? The limits of generic ‘explaining’ writing frames for constructing historical causal arguments

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In a previous post, I argued against ‘sentence starters’ such as ‘I believe…’ being labelled as the ‘language of the historian’.[i] I now want to consider another manifestation of this phenomenon: ‘explaining’ writing frames such as;

…so…

…therefore…

…because…

First, let me specify what I mean by ‘historical explanation’. In everyday language ‘explain’ is often used synonymously with ‘elucidate’, ‘make clear’ or ‘explicate’. [ii] In historical discourse, however, ‘explain’ tends to have a more precise meaning. As Megill noted ‘for many historians ‘explanation’ particularly means to say what caused it.’ [iii] To ‘explain’ in history, therefore, usually means to provide an argument in response to a question focused on the second-order concept of causation.[iv] An example of such a question might be;

‘It was the unusual political conditions operating in Massachusetts in 1692 that explain the extraordinary events in Salem’. How far do you agree with this explanation of the Salem witch hunt of 1692? [v]

As this example shows, ‘explain’ here does not (only) mean ‘make clear’. Instead, the student is first expected to recognise the densely abstract cause given in the question (the unusual political conditions in Massachusetts in 1692).  Second, the student must identify further causes of the crisis that might be similarly abstract. Such causes could include: the trauma caused by setbacks in King William’s War against the Wabanakis and New French; the puritan elites’ anxiety at declining religiosity in their theocracy; or the legitimising role that powerful male societal gatekeepers played in endorsing the afflicted girls’ accusations. The student would then be required to argue which of the causes was most important in bringing about the witch-hunt.

One consequence of generic definitions of ‘explanation’ is that sometimes writing frames such as ‘…this shows that…’ are labelled as historical ‘explaining’ language. Such frames might be appropriate for ‘explication’ but I would argue they lack the specificity required to enable pupils to meet the particular demands of ‘historical explanation’ as defined above.

But even if we are more precise about focusing on ‘causation’ and winnow out ‘explicating’ language we still might encounter difficulties. Many historians in the historiography of Salem do occasionally use ‘so’, ‘therefore’, and ‘because’ for explaining causation. The trouble is that most of these historians use this language for different types of causation that are not specifically historical.

First, some historians such as Bernard Rosenthal might use such language to make clear their processes of logic. For example;

One need not press the issue that the kind of testimony offered against Burroughs was less than adequate for a civil libertarian; but one cannot easily let go of the discrepancy between the rigorous standards of evidence set by Increase Mather and his willingness to embrace the conviction of Burroughs. So we have something of a puzzle; why did Mather make such an eloquent case against spectral evidence, a case for strict criteria in the discovering of witchcraft, and yet conclude, on the basis of evidence that defied his criteria, that George Burroughs had been tried fairly?[vi]

Here, Rosenthal wanted to show the processes he went through in deciding the questions he wanted to investigate. Generally speaking, the influential puritan minister Increase Mather argued against the admission of spectral evidence (the notion than an afflicted person seeing an apparition of a ‘witch’ could be used as evidence that the accused had made a diabolical pact). Puzzlingly, however, Mather wrote approvingly of the conviction of the unorthodox minister George Burroughs despite the fact that it was mainly spectral evidence used to convict him. This conundrum therefore caused Rosenthal to investigate and identify what he considered to be a key cause of the Salem witch trials: a desire by the puritan elite to purge religious nonconformity. For our purposes, however, the point is that Rosenthal is not using ‘so’ here to argue the relationship between abstract historical causes and consequences but instead to lay out his chain of logic.

Second, when substantiating an abstract historical cause with evidence, some historians of Salem might use ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ in a fashion similar to ‘everyday’ usage: cause-and-effect between individual participants. For example;

When the girls spoke, adults listened, in part because they believed in witches and the girls seemed genuinely troubled, in part because Betty (Parris) was the minister (Samuel Parris’) daughter and Ann (Putnam Jr’s) kin nearly monopolised local office’.[vii]

Here, Peter Hoffer used ‘because’ to provide personalised examples of a broader, abstract historical cause: the unusual amount of credibility that societal gatekeepers gave to the girls’ accusations.  Before they start their secondary schooling, most pupils will probably already be practised in using ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ in this way for explaining causation in their everyday life – such as when they explain they don’t have their homework because their dog ate it.

While I do see a rationale for labelling ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ for the particular purposes described above as the ‘language of the historian’, I personally wouldn’t. This reticence is because I don’t see how using this explaining language to outline processes of logic or personalised causation is particular to academic history compared to other disciplines or everyday speech. That particular debate, however, is somewhat moot because history teachers often don’t model ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘because’ for these goals.

I do also sympathise with the argument that in pupils’ early schooling the abstract nature of historical causation initially needs to be couched in the language of pupils’ lived experience. But a witting and grudging short-term compromise such as this is very different from claiming that using ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’ for explaining historical causation represents ‘the language of the historian’. In fact, pupils will quickly need to discard such frames to explain historically. Ultimately, a deadening, homogenising and distorting effect will be the consequence of the longer-term use of frames such as;

There was a witch hunt in Salem in 1692 because…

Far from being the ‘language of the historian’, most historians from the historiography of Salem avoid using ‘so’, ‘therefore’, or ‘because’ in this way because it strangles argumentation at birth. Counter-intuitively, rather than using ‘connectives’ most of these historians instead often realise historical causal relationships in ‘uncommonsense’ ways by using prepositional phrases, verbs, and nouns.[viii] By doing so, these historians are able to argue regarding the role and relative importance of causes that essentially neutral words like ‘because’ do not allow. [ix] Consider the following examples;

With the loss of Maine and the ill-fated Quebec expedition, New England suffered its worst humiliation. In the tinder box of inevitable and angry recrimination, the witch hunt caught fire. [x]

The foundation of the witchcraft crisis lay in puritan New Englanders’ singular worldview, one they had inherited from the first settlers of Massachusetts Bay more than sixty years earlier.[xi]

There had been New England witch trials before, but none precipitated by a cohort of bewitched adolescent and preadolescent girls.[xii]

In these examples, Mary Beth Norton, Enders A. Robinson, and Stacy Schiff provided and characterised mostly abstract causes of the crisis: the desperation to identify scapegoats for the succession of humiliating defeats to the allied Wabanakis and New French (precondition); the suspicion of nonconformity in the puritan worldview (root); and the ‘afflicted’ girls’ accusations (precipitant). None of this characterisation is possible with ‘so’, ‘therefore’ or ‘because’.

As I hope these examples have demonstrated referring to ‘explaining frames’ as ‘language of the historian’ is often an inappropriate label. But what explains such frames being used in this way? As I argued here,[xiii] one reason might be that the frames and their recommended use are vestiges of centralised initiatives such as the ‘National Literacy Strategy in History’ (2002). [xiv] While this resource claimed to be history specific in reality much of the language provided was generically applicable to any ‘non-fiction’ genre. [xv] As I have tried to show, ‘so’, ‘therefore’ and ‘because’ are wholly appropriate in general explanations of processes of logic or in everyday speech. They might also have a place in disciplines in which causal explanations only involve isolated variables and therefore do not require characterisation or prioritisation (for example, perhaps, ‘the apple fell to the ground because of gravity’).

But ‘historical explanation’ has its own distinctive characteristics. Its ‘uncommonsense’ nature means that it will be very difficult for pupils to pick up its linguistic features without specific guidance. If we accept that schooling is, in part, designed to move students from the realm of lived experience toward disciplined modes of thinking then there seems little point in explicitly modelling the language of the ‘everyday’ longer-term. But the issue is deeper than that. Using language that is not fit for argumentative purposes has a stunting effect on one’s scope for historical argument. Ultimately, unless we model language genuinely rooted in historical discourse then pupils’ historical explanations will almost certainly have a deadening, artificial, and non-argumentative quality. Language intended well-meaningly by teachers as an introductory leg-up to the pupil might all too quickly become a shackle tethering them to the floor. On the other hand discipline-sensitive linguistic scaffolds might, to borrow James Woodcock’s phrase, actually serve to ‘release the conceptual’ and emphasise the importance of characterising and prioritising abstract historical causes.[xvi]

 

**********************************************************************************

 

[i] What follows is a critique of common sentence starters that I have either a) used 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] Megill, A. (2007). Historical Knowledge, Historical Error: A Contemporary Guide to Practice. The University of Chicago Press: London p.79

[iii] Ibid.

[iv] Marwick, A. (2001). The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. London: Palgrave.

[v] Pearson Edexcel (2016a). Specification Pearson Edexcel Level 3 Advanced GCE in  History (9H10) First Teaching from September 2015 First Certification from 2017 Issue 2 London: Pearson. p.133 Retrieved from

https://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A%20Level/History/2015/Specification%20and%20sample%20assessments/9781446914366_GCE_2015_A_HIST.pdf

[vi] Rosenthal, B. (1993). Salem Story: Reading the Witch Trials of 1692. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p.142

[vii] Hoffer, P. C. (1996). The Devil’s Disciples: Makers of the Salem Witch Trials. London: John Hopkins University Press.  p.103

[viii] Halliday identified this phenomenon in academic writing which he termed ‘grammatical metaphor’.  Halliday, M.A.K. (1998). Things and relations. Regrammaticising experience as technical knowledge. In Martin, J.R. & Veel (Eds.) Reading Science: Critical and Functional Perspectives of Discourses of Science pp.185-237) London: Routledge; Halliday, M.A.K. & Matthiessen C.M.I.M. (1999). Construing Experience through Meaning. A Language Based Approach to Cognition. London: Cassell.

[ix] Martin, J. R. (2007). Construing knowledge: a functional linguistic perspective. In Christie, F. & Martin, J. R. (Eds.), Language, Knowledge and Pedagogy (pp.34-64). London: Continuum.

[x] Robinson, E. A. (1991). The Devil Discovered: Salem Witchcraft 1692. New York: Hippocrene Books p.189

[xi] Norton, M. B. (2002). In the Devil’s Snare: The Salem Witchcraft Crisis of 1692. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p.295

[xii] Schiff, S. (2015).The Witches: Salem, 1692. London: Little, Brown & Company.

[xiii] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From divergent evolution to witting cross-fertilisation: the need for more awareness of potential inter-discursive communication regarding students’ extended historical writing’ The Curriculum Journal 28(4) pp.504-523

[xiv] Department for Education and Skills. (2002). Key stage 3 national strategy – literacy in history. London: DfEaS p.21 Retrieved from http://dera.ioe.ac.uk/2379/7/sec_lit_hi_004602_Redacted.pdf

[xv] Ibid p.19

[xvi]Woodcock, J. (2005). ‘Does the linguistic release the conceptual? Helping Year 10 to improve their causal reasoning’ Teaching History 119, 5-14. Retrieved from https://www.history.org.uk/secondary/categories/651/resource/112/does-the-linguistic-release-the-conceptual-helpin

 

‘I believe…’ ahistorical ‘sentence starters’ should be scrapped. 

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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’.

[v] Ibid.

[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

 

‘What was going on at Harvard?’ What the ‘Goldhagen Controversy’ might teach us about ‘skills-based’ approaches to evaluating historical interpretations

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Over the last 18 months I have been planning and teaching my department’s new History A-Level coursework module that requires students to explain and evaluate academic historians’ arguments. I have already written elsewhere about how surprised I was that the exam board my department uses had seemed to ignore 20 years’ worth of history-teacher curricular theorisation in recommending that the module be taught through a ‘skills-based’ course where the teaching of content was ‘optional’.[i] Drawing on the work of history teachers I argued that such an approach was unlikely to enable students to satisfactorily explain why historians interpreted the Nazi period the way they did. Using an example from the historiography of Nazism I now want to (speculatively and theoretically) explore why I think the ‘content optional’ approach is similarly unlikely to enable students to move beyond the banal in evaluating the relative merits of academic historians’ arguments.

To provide concrete examples for my students, I have been reading academic reviews and historiographical overviews to try to identify specific criteria by which academic historians of the Nazi regime evaluate their peers’ work. In the course of my reading I came across the academic backlash to Daniel Goldhagen’s book Hitler’s Willing Executioners and the ensuing ‘Goldhagen Controversy’.[ii] As the title suggests, Goldhagen controversially argued that the main –  indeed only – cause of the Holocaust was what he termed German ‘eliminationist antisemitism’. This uniquely German phenomenon, Goldhagen claimed, had been brewing since the Middle Ages and after 1929 ‘ordinary Germans’ saw in the Nazis an opportunity to unleash their latent hatred and participate in a ‘national project’ to eliminate the Jews.

In some senses, Goldhagen’s book meets certain generic criteria by which one can judge a successful scholarly argument. If we assess the book’s provenance we find that Goldhagen received his PhD from Harvard; his university awarded the dissertation on which the book was based a prestigious prize; and partly due to an unprecedentedly bombastic PR campaign the book became an international bestseller. As part of that campaign esteemed historian Simon Schama’s claims that the book was ‘phenomenal scholarship’; contained ‘unavoidable truths; and ‘will permanently change the debate’ graced the book’s jacket.[iii] If the students’ analyses were to therefore begin and end with determining whether the historian passed the standard-checking protocols of historical scholarship in this instance students might have grounds to evaluate Goldhagen’s book as ‘good’.

This type of generic analysis of the book’s provenance, however, tells us very little about the book’s value as judged by most historians. In fact, despite the initial praise once Nazi specialists began to review the book an ‘avalanche of criticism’ was the result. [iv] As Bernhard Reiger noted, ‘the reaction to the book by professional historians could not have been more devastating’.[v] Some of the more scathing dismissals by leading authorities included: ‘simply a bad book’; ‘worthless as scholarship’; and ‘ahistorical’.[vi]

I have begun to approach this reaction as a type of exemplar of what historians of the Nazi regime think should disqualify a historical argument on that topic. Consider the following (non-exhaustive and not necessarily exclusively-historical) checklist and how from the perspective of his reviewers Goldhagen failed to meet the criteria. In a simplified and decontextualized form, some of these are the type of criteria that might form the basis of an ‘evaluation’ heuristic that teachers may give A-Level students in a ‘skill-based’ course.

  • Generates new knowledge? ✘

Goldhagen ‘contributed little or nothing to a deeper understanding’.[vii]

  • Plausible interpretation based on the known evidence? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘circular’ and ‘naturally, pure nonsense’.[viii]

  • Avoids factual mistakes? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument contains a ‘disastrous number of empirical errors’.[ix]

  • Avoids overgeneralisation? ✘

Goldhagen ‘generalises from the thinnest sliver of evidence’[x].

  • Avoids cherry-picking evidence to support an a priori hypothesis? ✘

Goldhagen displays a ‘highly selective use of evidence’ to justify an ‘a priori crude generalisation’.[xi]

  • Avoids unnecessary oversimplification? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘monocausal’; an ‘oversimplification’; and ‘reductionist’.[xii]

  • Displays a strong command of the existing secondary literature? ✘

Goldhagen ‘dismissed previous scholarship’.[xiii]

  • Avoids teleology? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘determinist’.[xiv]

  • Tries their best to neutralise their moral, ideological, or political agendas? ✘

Goldhagen’s argument is ‘plain and simple demonization’; ‘dogmatic, ideological history into myth’; and a ‘purely moralistic value judgement’.[xv]

I could go on. At this point you might be thinking ‘Hang on. If the book is so poor, how on earth did Goldhagen progress so far up the academic ladder before anyone intervened?’ Well, historians of the Nazi period started to ask exactly the same thing and began to investigate how, in this instance, the usual quality-assurance mechanisms of historical scholarship such as the PhD and peer review could seemingly have so badly malfunctioned. As the distinguished Israeli historian Yehuda Bauer pointed out: ‘just what was going on at Harvard?’[xvi] It was soon revealed that Goldhagen’s doctoral supervisor Stanley Hoffman, while a leading authority in his field, was not an expert on Nazi Germany. Similarly, then Harvard colleague Schama, despite being regarded as one of the finest scholars of his generation, was an expert in early modern Europe.[xvii]

It is reasonable to assume that Hoffman and Schama have probably forgotten more about the disciplinary conventions of history like those summarised in my crude checklist above than I (or the vast majority of my students) can ever reasonably hope to know. Indeed, Schama’s seminal narrative account of the French Revolution Citizens was in some ways designed as a corrective to the overly-abstract and implicitly determinist socio-economic accounts of the Revolution that had become the norm in the 1960s and 1970s.[xviii] Yet this appreciation of how history should operate at a general level and/or within their specialist field  seemingly did not enable them to satisfactorily ‘evaluate’ the merits of Goldhagen’s argument compared to Nazi specialists. Why?

While other suggestions were given, the most common explanation given by the Nazi specialists was that Schama and Hoffman lacked the necessary knowledge of the Nazi period required to activate their disciplinary knowledge. On the one hand, this accusation can be viewed as tribalism: a clear warning to non-specialists to ‘stay off their patch’. The Nazi specialists’ reasoning, however, does seem to at least partially explain the drastically differing character of the non-specialists’ and specialists’ evaluations when we consider that, to varying degrees, all of my criteria above require the evaluator to have an expert knowledge of either;

1) the Nazi regime and/or

2) German and European history prior to 1933 and/or

3) Europe and the wider world beyond Germany 1933-45 and/or

4) the current primary evidence base of the Nazi period and/or

5) the existing state of play of the secondary literature of the Nazi period.

Although they may not have been specialists in the Nazi era compared to the reviewers, it is safe to assume that Hoffman and Schama have far more than a dilettante’s understanding of Germany 1933-45. So if Schama and Hoffman can so badly misread the merits of an historical argument due to lack of contextual knowledge, what hope do my Year 13s have if only equipped with a ‘skills-based course’ where ‘content’ is ‘optional’? [xix]At best, they will be able to recite heuristics and ‘markscheme-ese’. But in terms of real evaluation, a generally-applicable repertoire of ‘skills’ regarding ‘what a good historian does’ seems to only get even the most accomplished historians so far when they have to evaluate the merits a piece of historical scholarship without a critical mass of contextual knowledge.

 

[i] Carroll, J. E. (2017). ‘From ‘double vision’ to panorama: using history of memory to bridge ‘event space’ when exploring interpretations of Nazi popularity with Year 13’ Teaching History 168 pp.24-36;

For a review of the critique of the ‘skills and knowledge’ dichotomy try Counsell, C. (2011a). History teachers as curriculum makers: professional problem-solving in secondary school history in England. In Schüllerqvist, B. (Ed.) Patterns of Research in Civics, History, Geography and Religious Education (pp.53-88). Karlstad: Karlstad University Press;

Pearson Edexcel (2016) Frequently Asked Questions – Coursework Guidance pp. 3-6 http://qualifications.pearson.com/content/dam/pdf/A%20Level/ History/2015/teaching-and-learning-materials/Coursework_FAQs_final.pdf

[ii]  Goldhagen, D. J. (1996). Hitler’s Willing Executioners: Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust London: Abacus

[iii] Wehler, H-U. (1997). ‘The Goldhagen Controversy: Agonising Problems, Scholarly Failure and the Political Dimension’ Germany History 15 (1) pp.88-89

[iv] 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 pp.257-263

[v] Rieger, B. (1997). ‘‘Daniel in the Lion’s Den?’ The German Debate about Goldhagen’s “Hitler’s Willing Executioners”’ History Workshop Journal 43 pp.227-228

[vi] Kershaw, I. (2015). The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (4th Ed.). London: Bloomsbury. pp.296-299;

Jarausch, K. H. & Geyer, M. (2003). Shattered Past: Reconstructing German Histories. Oxford: Princeton University Press. p.53

[vii] Kershaw op. cit. pp.296-297

[viii] Kershaw ibid. 301-302; Wehler op.cit. pp.80-85

[ix] Wehler ibid. 85-88

[x] Smith, H. W. (2005). ‘The Vainishing Point of German History: An Essay on Perspective History and Memory 17 (1/2) pp.289

[xi] Kershaw op.cit. 301-302

[xii] Rieger op.cit. pp.227-228;

Stackelberg, R. (2007) The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. London: Routledge pp.45-46

[xiii] Jarausch & Geyer op.cit. p.53

[xiv] Wehler op. cit. pp.80-85

[xv] Wehler ibid.

[xvi] Wehler ibid. pp.88-89

[xvii] Wehler ibid. 88-89

[xviii] Schama, S. (1989). Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution. New York: Alfred A. Knopf p.xv

 

 

Challenges with comparisons with Nazism

Comparative history is a powerful weapon in the historian’s armoury. The historian’s perspective in the present allows them to compare two or more phenomena in order to better characterise the essence of what is being studied. For example, Marwick has argued that ‘comparative study involving comparison within a single country or between different countries is of immense value, since in highlighting both similarities and differences it can be a source of new synthesis, new questions, and, sometimes, convincing answers’.[i] For these and other reasons, ‘similarity and difference’ is enshrined in the National History Curriculum as a second order concept which can be used to frame and drive rigorous enquiry questions.

Historians have encountered difficulties, however, when trying to apply these methodological apparatus to Nazism. Among historians and the public more generally, the Nazi regime is almost uniformly accepted to have been uniquely evil and destructive.[ii] Consequently, in many ways the historiography of Nazism is similarly unique in terms of the ferocity of the debates accompanying it: particularly when comparison is involved.[iii] To take one famous example Fritz Fischer’s research heavily implied similarities between the war aims of the Wilhelmian government before World War I and Hitler’s own expansionist policies. Despite Fischer’s work being ‘meticulously-documented’ and eventually precipitating a ‘paradigm-shift’ in German historical research in the 1960s,  it was so divisive that many prominent conservative historians refused to shake Fischer’s hand in public.[iv] The mere insinuation that the Nazis were in any way comparable to the conservative government of Wilhelm II and Bethmann-Holwegg was enough to elicit the fury of many German nationalists.

Fischer’s method was conventionally historicist, rigorous, and therefore eventually became widely accepted by the probative community of scholars. Due to Nazism’s horrific nature and the inevitable moral undercurrent of the debates, however, the methodology of comparative history designed to ensure some measure of disciplinary objectivity has often been discarded to enable moral, political or ideological claims to be made. Consequently, there is a greater tendency in the study of Nazism for comparative interpretations to ‘distort reality and (be) intellectually dishonest’.[v]

These arguments tend to take two forms. First, because the topic of Nazism is so morally-charged, if proper methodological fail-safes are not employed comparisons soon descend into thinly-veiled ideological propaganda. This argument tends to adopt the following logic. ‘This aspect of x is a bit like Nazism. Everyone knows Nazism is evil. Therefore x is evil.’ History devolves into a vehicle for brush-tarring. For example, some of the cruder Cold War proponents of totalitarian theory were only interested in cherry-picking similarities between Nazi and Communist states to discredit their Soviet enemies and shore up democratic liberalism in the west in the 1950s.[vi] A similar if more pronounced phenomenon can be seen in ‘fascism’ theory in East Germany where ‘similarities’ between the Nazi regime and its western capitalist successor state in the FRG were identified but the myriad differences were ignored to justify the new ‘antifascist’ state in the East.[vii] For these reasons, much of the scholarship of this type has now been dismissed by historians as ‘weapons’ of Cold War ideology.[viii]

The second type of argument is even more pernicious because it might be adopted by those who wish to exculpate Germans of Nazi crimes. The logic is as follows: ‘Yes Nazism was evil. But x which isn’t considered as evil also did something which can be compared to Nazism. Therefore Nazism can only be as evil as x’.  Fearing these sort of rationalisations some historians such as Saul Friedländer in his heated debate with Martin Broszat have argued that applying the ‘normal’ historicist methods of history to this subject risk normalising, relativising and trivialising the Nazi regime’s uniquely evil crimes.[ix]

Friedländer’s worst fears were to some extent realised during the vituperative Historikerstreit (Historians’ dispute) of 1986-87. Ernst Nolte latched onto and bastardised Broszat’s plea for the ‘historicisation’ of Nazism and argued that Nazism’s crimes needed to be ‘normalised’. He went on to argue that the Holocaust should be compared to ‘the Asiatic deeds’ of the Armenian genocide and the Stalinist Terror as well as to the atrocities of the Khmer Rouge. He then used such comparative analysis to posit a thesis that the Holocaust was an excessive, but logical, reaction to Stalin’s crimes and was in many ways modelled on them. He therefore heavily implied that the USSR had been worse than Nazism. In doing so, he had to ignore evidence that contradicted his thesis, such as Hitler’s genocidal claims in the early 1920s before Stalin came to power. Unlike Broszat who sought to apply ‘historicisation’ to achieve greater understanding of how the Holocaust could have occurred, Nolte clearly had practical purposes in mind. He wanted to end what he considered to be the left-wing, self-flagellating, and anti-national ‘pedagogical historiography’  of Nazism and allow the ‘past to pass away’.[x] To many observers such as Jürgen Habermas Nolte’s argument hid barely-disguised and insidious apologetic purposes to justify the crimes of and suppress the memory of Nazism.[xi]

These examples do not mean that comparison with Nazism is impossible. As Kershaw and Lewin have argued, ‘the ideological abuse of a comparative concept does not in itself invalidate genuine historical comparison’.[xii] In fact, in order to substantiate any claim of ‘uniqueness’ comparisons must be made.[xiii] I personally agree more with Broszat that only through the rigorous, disciplinary objective methods of history can even the most horrific of historical phenomena be truly understood. This approach does necessitate, however, that comparisons be made judiciously and by applying the proper historical method.

For example, comparisons must be initiated with an equal commitment to identifying similarities AND differences and their relative weight. At best, the problem with the exclusive focus on and cherry-picking of similarities to Nazism is that it has no analytical power. The ‘this aspect of x is a bit like Nazism so therefore x is evil’ line of argument can literally be applied to almost any ideology and system so that it becomes completely redundant as an interpretative framework. It does little to characterise the nature of Nazism or the thing that it is being compared to. At worst, a consequence of frivolous comparison is that it opens the door to pernicious relativism and the trivialisation of Nazism’s horrific crimes.

[i]Marwick, A. (2001). The New Nature of History: Knowledge, Evidence, Language. London: Palgrave. p.92

[ii] Stackelberg, R. (2007) The Routledge Companion to Nazi Germany. London: Routledge

[iii] For example, the ‘Fischer Controversy’ of the early 1960s; the ‘structuralist’/’intentionalist’ debates at the Cumberland Lodge conference in 1979; the Historikerstreit of 1986-87; the ‘Goldhagen Controversy’ in the mid 1990s; Aly and other younger historians accusing structuralists of being Nazi apologetics at the German Historical Conference in 1998.

[iv] Evans, R. J. (1989). In Hitler’s Shadow: West German Historian and the Attempt to Escape from the Nazi Past New York: Pantheon p.113; Stackelberg op.cit.

[v] Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M. (1997). ‘Introduction: The regimes and their dictators: perspectives of comparison’. In Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M. (Eds.) Stalinism and Nazism: Dictatorship in Comparison. (pp.1-25). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. pp.3-4

[vi] Kershaw, I. and Lewin, M op.cit.

[vii] Kershaw, I. (2015). The Nazi Dictatorship: Problems and Perspectives of Interpretation (4th Ed.). London: Bloomsbury; Jarausch, K. H. (1991). ‘The Failure of East German Antifascism: Some Ironies of History as Politics’ German Studies Review 14(1) pp.85-102

[viii] Caplan, J. (2006). The Historiography of National Socialism. In Bentley, M. (Ed.) Companion to Historiography (pp.526-544). London: Routledge

[ix] Broszat, M. & Friedländer, S. (1988). ‘A Controversy about the Historicization of National Socialism’ New German Critique 44 pp.85-126

[x] Stackelberg op.cit.

[xi] Evans, R. J. (1987). ‘The New Nationalism and the Old History: Perspectives on the West German HistorikerstreitThe Journal of Modern History 59 (4) pp.761-797; Maier C. S. (1998) The Unmasterable Past: History, Holocaust, and German National Identity (2nd Ed.) London: Harvard University Press

[xii] Kershaw op.cit.; Jarausch op.cit.

[xiii] This criticism has famously been made about Daniel Goldhagen’s claim that Germany in the build up to the Holocaust was ‘uniquely’ ‘eliminationist’ in its anti-Semitism. Many historians have noted that Goldhagen did not substantiate his claim by comparing Germany to other examples of anti-semitism in Europe such as the Russian pogroms or the French Dreyfus Affair. E.g. ‘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, Vol. 8, No. 2 (Jul., 1999), pp. 249-273