Social Education 59(3), 1995, pp. 151-153
National Council for the Social Studies

The Historian as Detective: An Introduction to Historical Methodology

Michael J. Arrato Gavrish

In his novel 1984, George Orwell warns that "He who controls the present controls the past, he who controls the past controls the future" (Orwell 1949). The freedom to discover and debate the past is an essential component of a democratic society where free-thinking individuals are to be valued. Yet many students hold too tightly to an authoritarian idea: that history consists simply of what textbooks or encyclopedias present as fact. It is important for students to obtain a better understanding of the kind of dilemma faced by historians as they grapple with the question of what really happened in the past.
The classroom lesson in historical methodology presented here attempts to show secondary students how dedicated historians search for what happened in the past. After creating the curriculum project for my U.S. history classes, I named the unit "The Historian as Detective," a title inspired by the book of that name written and edited by Robin Winks. Winks states, "The historian must collect, interpret, and then explain his evidence, by methods which are not greatly different from those techniques employed by the detective, or at least the detective of fiction" (Winks 1969). I agree with Winks' suggestion that a historian is more like a detective than a scientist.

My initial presentation includes seven mini-activities, which I introduce dressed up as Inspector Gavrish, accompanied by the theme from The Pink Panther. In each mini-activity, I focus on a specific aspect of the process that real historians must go through. My overall goal is to try to get my students to think more critically about the written history that they study. I offer some ideas and comments, as well as appropriate quotes, but I want the students to do most of the investigating, explaining, and discussing.

Section I
"History is the memory of things said and done." -Carl Becker
In this activity, I tape three diagrams on the chalkboard. Each diagram consists of two different shapes and colors. After a few minutes, to the surprise of my students, I proceed to destroy the diagrams. Worksheets are then passed out, and the students are asked to try to remember what the diagrams were. After they share their frustrations with me, I stress to them that historical events cannot be replayed for the historian's pleasure. The historian must sometimes rely on poor eyewitness accounts. The purpose of this first section is to suggest that history is reconstructed from traces of the past.

In Diagram A:

In Diagram B:

In Diagram C:

Section II
"Unlike a good steak, good history should always be well done."
-Michael Arrato Gavrish

In this activity students are asked to come up with sources of information with which to answer some basic questions about their first few childhood years. They usually have no trouble coming up with numerous sources of information. It is made clear that their examples, such as parents, a baby book, hospital records, etc., are considered primary sources. It is then pointed out that a biography, magazine articles, encyclopedia, etc., would be classified as secondary sources. The students are told that good historians work mostly with primary sources, even though this may take more time and effort. The aim of this section is to distinguish between primary and secondary sources.

What are some sources of information that would help you answer the following groups of questions?

Group A

Group B

Group C

Section III
"Entirely faithful testimony is not the rule but the exception."
-Thomas Spencer Jerome

A situation is presented to the class in which a teacher has accused a pupil named Bob of cheating on a test and begins to question some of the other class members regarding the alleged cheating incident. The students are challenged to name which of the pupils in Bob's class would be most trustworthy and which would be least trustworthy. In discussions with the students in the class, problems of bias and of finding a genuine eyewitness are highlighted. Pointing out the difficulty of finding reliable witnesses is the goal of this section.

Which of the following people do you think would most likely tell the truth about Bob cheating on a test?

Which of the following people do you think would least likely tell the truth about Bob cheating on a test?

Bob: sits in the back of the room
Sally: sits in the front of the room; likes Bob very much
Cindy: sits next to Bob in the back
Jeff: sits next to Bob in the back; dislikes Bob greatly
Allen: sits in the middle of the room

Section IV
"History is only a confused heap of facts." -Lord Chesterfield
In this activity the students are shown three physical objects and asked to define what they are, or even more important, what they might be thought to be. Objects that I have used include a slide rule, egg separator, etc.; other teachers, however, might want to explore a flea market for some old gadgets. There are always very imaginative students who suggest interesting names and purposes for the selected objects. I advise them that even material evidence is not always used by historians without their needing to undertake further investigation and creative thinking about the evidence. The purpose of this section is to demonstrate that historical physical evidence can proffer challenges too.

What are the following objects in today's world?

Item AItem BItem C
What might these objects be thought to have been if discovered in the year 2500?

Item AItem BItem C

Section V
"Forgery is in fact one of the oldest and commonest offences [sic]."
-Allan Nevins

This activity starts when the class is presented with a copy of a letter from George Washington, which I supposedly have just found in my attic. I ask my students what might make them suspicious about its authenticity. They are usually quite good at locating physical and literary anachronisms, historical inaccuracies, and other problems with the letter. They are told that forgery is a real problem faced by historians even today. To illustrate the various ways to analyze historical documents is the goal of this section.

What parts of this letter would make you doubt that this is a genuine letter from George Washington? Circle them.

Section VI
"What does exist are historians writing upon different levels and at different distances, historians writing with different aims and different intentions, historians writing in different contexts and from different points of view."
-Patrick Gardiner
Students are asked to check off one answer to each of five questions about my presentation that day. Except on rare occasions, there is no disagreement regarding questions 1 and 2 below. However, the students enjoy sharing their varying opinions on questions 3 through 5. I speak of how historians often disagree even though they supposedly deal only with facts. The aim of this section is to explore the issue of varying historical points of view.

What would your answer be to the following questions about Mr. Gavrish in today's class?

Check off only one in each case.

1. What pattern best describes the tie he is wearing?
n solidn stripedn polka dot
2. What pattern best describes the jacket he has on?
n plaidn solidn striped
3. What kind of mood is he in?
n contentn excitedn sad and tired
4. What does he look like today?
n unique dresser
n nicely dressed up
n not dressed very tastefully
5. What did he accomplish today?
n tried but failed to make class exciting
n did many wild and wacky things
n presented class in a very interesting and innovative way

Section VII
"[The historian] looks for causes, but never all the causes."
-Paul Conkin
The class is given a synopsis of a story in which the female character, Sue, ends up dead. The students are then asked to give the cause of Sue's death. Usually a few students talk about their frustrations due to the requirement that only one cause can be checked off. I point out that historians also face the challenge of naming a major cause for a historical event. To illustrate the problem of determining cause and effect in history is the purpose of this section.

Joe and Sue are a young married working couple. One Thursday in early November, they have a major argument over who should cook dinner. On this night, Sue comes home about two hours late on account of an unexpected snowstorm. When she gets into the apartment, she finds Joe lying on the couch, eating potato chips, and watching the news on TV. She begins to yell at him for not having put dinner in the oven, which she had prepared last night. He screams that he had no idea when she was coming home, and asks why she didn't at least telephone. Sue calls him an inconsiderate person and a helpless husband. Joe tells her that she is an uncaring individual and a part-time wife.
After arguing for more than an hour, Sue leaves the apartment, slamming the door in Joe's face. She drives to the nearest coffee shop, where she sits sobbing for a half hour. Then she decides to go back home. On the way, she slides through a red light, because her car has bald tires, and she is hit by a Mack truck. She dies soon afterwards, but she might have been saved if the ambulance had not been delayed because of the snow and other accidents.

According to the story, what caused Sue's death?

Mark only one box.

In order to learn about historical methodology, high school students need to experience some of the challenges that historians face when searching for the truth about the past. Offering students methodological problems that interest them is an excellent means of developing their ability to think.

While many of the activities discussed above focus on problems of subjectivity and bias in the study of history, I certainly do not wish to support Napoleon's view that history is "an agreed-upon fiction" (Herold 1955). Students need to realize that the truth regarding historical events may be elusive, but that we must continue our quest to discover it. And activities like those described above pose questions that can lead students to develop such key abilities as the examination of all sides of an issue and the formulation of appropriate criteria for evaluating evidence.

Carr, Edward Hallet. What is History? New York: Random House, 1961.Conkin, Paul K., and Roland N. Stromberg. The Heritage and Challenge of History. New York: Dodd, Mead, and Company, 1973.Gardiner, Patrick. The Nature of Historical Explanation. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.Guinsberg, Thomas, ed. The Dimensions of History. Chicago: Rand McNally and Company, 1973.Hamerow, Theodore S. Reflections on History and Historians. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987.Herold, J. Christopher. The Mind of Napoleon. New York: Columbia University Press, 1955.Nash, Ronald H., ed. Ideas of History. New York: E.P. Dutton and Company, 1969.Orwell, George. 1984: A Novel. New York: Harcourt, Brace, & Co., 1949.Walsh, W. H. Philosophy of History. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1967.Winks, Robin W. The Historian as Detective. New York: Harper and Row Publishers, 1969.Michael J. Arrato Gavrish has taught U.S. History at Pinkerton Academy for over 15 years. He received his B.A. from Bates College and obtained his M.A. as the result of a sabbatical at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University.