Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 149-150
National Council for the Social Studies

History is in the Eye of the Beholder

Arthur Brakel
Most history students realize that primary sources - original documents or artifacts-are the cornerstones of written history. But how many really understand that the books they study are just interpretations by authors of primary sources, and that these interpretations may be wrong?
When students grasp the crucial fact that written history reflects the historian's own insights, biases, and limitations, they have discovered both the pleasure and the peril of studying history. They quickly realize that while they are free to analyze and dissect, and to perceive new meaning and significance, this freedom brings with it the risks of biases, limitations, and subjective points of view.

There are different ways of making this important point. The National Archives specialists (Alexander et al. 1989) suggest that the instructor start to teach about primary documents by having students inspect and handle each other's identification cards, drivers licenses, etc., and then describe them. In doing so, students get the feel of primary sources, then hear their classmates describe what they themselves have passed around. They can then attempt to interpret real historical documents.

I can suggest another way to teach the lesson and to lead students to the knowledge that history is subjective, and that to study it will take as much careful thought and reflection as any other course they take.

I learned this exercise from Professor Alton (Pete) Becker in a class on language and culture at the University of Michigan in the fall of 1985. I have used it since in an interdisciplinary "Basic Ideas" course I taught at Albion College and in a senior-level workshop in translation there. Last year, in a social studies teaching methods class at Eastern Michigan University I used it again, this time as a demonstration lesson. It is, I believe, very appropriate for use in high schools.

It is probably best to start the exercise right at the beginning of class. That should grab the attention of the class, and at the same time provide ample time-perhaps even the rest of the class period-for the discussions that are sure to ensue.

The instructor says something like, "Today, students, we'll begin the class a bit differently. I'm going to leave the room and shut the door, but I'll return. You are to describe in writing, using only one sentence, exactly what happens when I return."

The instructor leaves the room, shuts the door, waits a few seconds, then returns, walks to the desk, and remains stationary until all students have finished writing. Once the class has finished writing, the instructor has the students read their sentences aloud.

This is where things get really interesting. In my experience with classes of from 8 to 22 students, no two have ever written the same sentence. Professor Becker says the exercise could be performed in a lecture hall of 500 students, and no sentences would be the same there either. The variation is tremendous. Students have produced haikus, complex-compound sentences, simple sentences, run-on sentences, sentence fragments-even sentences that seem to deny my presence in the class.

Exercise 1 gives some examples of sentences produced in the teaching methods class at Eastern Michigan.

Exercise 1
1.The angry teacher scuffled across the room, and plopped his sorry self down on the desk.
2. The teacher slammed the door.
3. The people are clueless.
4. What is going on with our usually sane teacher and his door-slamming antics?
5. The teacher is here today.
6. slammed the door, wasn't gone for long, touched papers, stared at us.
The door did slam-accidentally, because of a draft-but the writer of the first sentence assumed that I was angry, and portrayed my walking as laborious (I would own up to "shuffling" across the room). And he had me sitting on my desk as if I were an object in need of repair. He included three parts of the event, though he did not explicitly mention the slamming of the door; he did not record the students' writing, my touching the papers, and my surveying the classroom.

The second sentence, from another student, merely recorded the slamming of the door and my presumed responsibility.

The student who wrote the third sentence attributed confusion to the class but did not state the source of their confusion.

The fourth sentence suggested a student's confusion, the presence of others ("our . . . teacher"), and the slamming of the door as aberrant behavior on my part.

The fifth sentence, an understatement, left out all the action, the context, and any interpretation.

The sixth sentence was remarkable because it took the form of class notes and made my absence a parenthetical afterthought. It focused on my actions, yet did not present me as the subject of any of the four verbs used.

The original purpose of the exercise was to have students witness linguistic creativity, à la Chomsky, firsthand. It demonstrated that even when the stimuli are constant and scarcely worthy of remark, normal human beings represent them in language and record them in infinite numbers of ways through original sentences they have never heard, read, or said before.

Even Historians Have Axes to Grind
I also used this exercise in the interdisciplinary "Basic Ideas" course for freshmen at Albion. That time, it was a prelude to interpreting Kurosawa's Rashomon. I used the exercise to illustrate the problematic nature of historical accounts, since all written documents have authors with personal outlooks, pointed views, and even "axes to grind."

I used it again at Albion in the translation workshop, where I wanted to drive home the point that no students working separately would produce the same translations of a specific text.

There were few students in the college classes where I used the exercise. As a result, we could examine, explicate, and evaluate each sentence in a single session. There were about 100 students in Professor Becker's class at the University of Michigan when he presented this exercise. The class lasted for an hour and twenty minutes; we were able to comment on only about twenty of the sentences handed in. In high school classes of 25 or more, it might be best for the teacher to ask students to read their sentences, note perhaps five or six that were radically different from each other, and have the students write them on the blackboard. Then, either in groups or together, the class could analyze each sentence. Exercise 2 lists issues that students could address.

Exercise 2
1. From this sentence, could a person who was not present know what happened, or where, why, or when the event took place?
2. What would someone understand from this sentence reading it out of context?
3. Does the sentence reflect biases or a personal interpretation of the event? If so how? Be specific.
4. As witnesses to the event, what does your group feel the sentence needs to make it an adequate account of what you saw?
5. Rewrite the sentence so that it is an adequate account of the event.
Once the sentences have been discussed, analyzed, and revised, the class can be introduced to the questions asked in Exercise 3.

Exercise 3
1. What did all the sentences have in common?
2. Why were they all different?
3. Are the rewritten sentences also different from one another?
4. How would you categorize the event they described? Was it "charged" or was it neutral?
5. What do you think the descriptions would have been like had the event been "charged"?
6. What does this mean for us as historians?
If the students get the point, they will decide that all the sentences dealt with the same event. But they differed from each other because all people view any event they witness through the filters of their own experiences. These, together with differences in their backgrounds and their own idiosyncrasies, influence how they observe, analyze, and record things, even in "non-charged" situations. Had the exercise focused on a "charged" situation, the written records of it would certainly have been all the more divergent. As historians, this means that we should be wary of any single report of an event because each record is bound to be different.

Let the Reader Beware!
This exercise should not only confirm the historian's need to conduct original research with primary sources, but raise a red flag for students warning them to beware of their sources. In short, any text will reflect a point of view, a bias, and omissions. We should approach all texts (not excluding this one!) with caution.

Alexander, Mary, CeCe Byers, and Elsie Freeman. "Introduction." In Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.Kurosawa, Akira. Rashomon. Tokyo: Daiei, 1951.Wilson, Don. "Forward." In Teaching with Documents: Using Primary Sources from the National Archives, Washington, DC: National Archives and Records Administration, 1989.

Arthur Brakel is working as a freelance writer and translator. He is currently in the process of obtaining a secondary teaching certificate with a bilingual English-Spanish endorsement from Eastern Michigan University.