Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Say What?????

I subscribe to an interesting e-newsletter called NHEC Enews. It not only offers valuable tidbits about current trends in education, but also offers great primary source material, strategies for teaching history, and highlights recent research in the field of history education.

The most recent issue featured a great article on the grammar of history textbooks. I don't know about you, but I was in college before I truly examined the role that perspective played in history. I always incorrectly assumed that what my textbook said was absolute fact, when the words were actually filtered through the lens of someone's viewpoint. Call it naivety, call it immaturity...but it wasn't until I was about nineteen years old that a lightbulb went off in my head: History books (and textbooks) are written by PEOPLE--people with opinions, people with biases, people with good intentions but occasional misinformation. As historians, our jobs are to process the information we receive, separate fact from opinion, and recognize that no one account will tell the entire truth simply because it is only one person's (or team's) truth.

Here's a fictitious example illustrating the power of perspective and word choice:

1. The Natives rode in on their horses, whooping and hollering with war cries, and attacked the settlers as they slept peacefully.

2. The Native Americans swiftly moved into the settlers' camp at nightfall, hoping to avenge tribal members murdered the night before.

3. The Indians snuck into the settlers' camp late at night. This was the best time to get horses without disturbing the sleeping pioneers and forcing a confrontation.

All three sentences offer different word choices and perspectives about motivation. Words evoke emotion, indicate power, and represent clear decisions made by the author as to how the historical material is related. One can never completely escape bias--every historian has it (even you :) ). The best we can hope to do is keep an open mind, explore a variety of sources, and recognize that all history is written by humans with human fallibility.

With all that in mind, here are a couple of great articles about the use of language analysis to help make meaning out of (often difficult to read) history textbooks:

NHEC The Grammar of History Textbooks Part I: Getting Meaning Through Language Analysis

The Grammar of History Textbooks Part II: Questioning the Text

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