Why it Matters
Most students quickly understand that facts and evidence are critical to historical interpretation. However, students also need to understand how conflicting emphases on different forms of evidence, or the weight given to particular factors, can change the meaning of events; and that, over time, historical interpretations can change as older works are superseded by new evidence, new biographical information, and the opening of archives.
Acquainting students with historiography and notable historiographical debates can help them achieve that understanding. It can spark classroom discussion and give students valuable experience articulating arguments based on the evidence. It is useful for writing essays and papers, in that it armors students against the inadvertent misuse of sources, and it gives them the skill to rigorously interpret documents and other pieces of evidence.
In this way students will come to understand that historiography is a guide for evaluating their own interpretation of historical events. It can help them structure their own thinking, in that it encourages them to consider different ways of viewing the same evidence. Further, students can see the value of evidence itself and its different forms; statistical information versus a leader's speech, for instance. It also teaches them to consider the many different answers to vexing historical questions, such as: Were the short- or long-term causes or consequences of an event more significant? What is more important, the intent behind an action or its result? Why does one not always flow from the other?
Learning by Doing
A good hands-on way to focus students on the use of historiography as a framework for understanding historical events is the comparative problem essay. You can involve students with historiography in a preliminary assignment, or perhaps part of a larger paper which addresses a particular historical event as a problem.
For example, ask students to find two historians who disagree on the facts or the importance of an event and write a comparative essay (which can be quite brief—perhaps three double-spaced pages). This is particularly easy to do where major wars are concerned, such as the Crimean War, the Franco-Prussian War, or World War I. Often there are a bewildering number of different interpretations. Students might select two histories of one event and detail the differences in approach and evaluation. It is likely students will not address the historiographical issues thoroughly, but even basic comparison, if students understand they are looking for differences in the evidence used and the approach taken, will be valuable and can form the basis for class discussion of why historians interpret events differently.
If you want an approach with more structured goals, construct a more rigorous assignment for the entire class. For example, several exciting debates over the origins of the World Wars exist and are accessible to students at an introductory level. You can find a historiographic essay or article, or perhaps the introduction of a useful book, and assign it to students along with a selection of two or more different interpretations of the origins of the particular war. Students can then be directed to examine the evidence in the selections and make conclusions about the different schools of interpretation, but more importantly, how they emphasize different people, events, or policies.
Finally, if you find it difficult to incorporate new material into an already crowded course it might be more expedient to modify a lesson or series of lessons on related topics (World War I is again a good example) to address historiographical issues, perhaps even introducing historians and their thinking about particular events. Or you can present evidence to a class in an outline, present some historiographical schools, and encourage students to debate the validity of the interpretive frameworks on the basis of the evidence. Whatever method you choose to use, the introduction to students of the existence of historiography and its importance to history and historical thinking will serve them well in both the short and long term.
There are a number of books on the craft of history and the importance of historiography, but the amount of reading (and frequent references to different historians or problems) is more than most students have time for. Selections from the following, however, may be very useful for defining topics. The Butterfield essay is quite old, but it frames the question of historiography very well in a way students will grasp instinctively.
Bloch, Marc. The Historian's Craft. New York: Vintage, 1953.
Butterfield, Herbert. "Moral Judgement in History." History and Human Relations. New York: Macmillan, 1953.
Carr, E. H. What Is History? New York: Random House, 1961.
Novick, Peter. That Noble Dream. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.
There are also many anthologies, readers, and other sources for finding historical debates framed by scholars and easily presented to students. Most of these will identify the ideological position of the historians involved or will comment more or less extensively on the ways in which particular evidence has been used. Some notable recent examples include:
Conklin, Alice, and Ian Fletcher, eds. European Imperialism, 1830–1930. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999.
Eubank, Keith. World War II, Roots and Causes. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1992.
Harbutt, Fraser J. The Cold War Era. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002.
Herwig, Holger, ed. The Outbreak of World War I. 6th ed. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1997.
Keylor, William. The Legacy of the Great War: Peacemaking, 1919. Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1998.
Other potentially useful books teachers might consider when beginning to put together different sources for assignments follow. This list is by no means comprehensive, but it may serve as a profitable starting point.
Kennedy, Paul. The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. New York: Vintage, 1987.
Kershaw, Ian. Hitler, 1889-1945. 2 vols. New York: W. W. Norton, 1999-2000.
Lieven, Dominic. The Aristocracy in Europe, 1815-1914. New York: Columbia University Press, 1993.
Winter, Dennis. Death's Men: Soldiers of the Great War. New York: Penguin, 1978.
Ohio State University