How should students evaluate historians’ arguments?

Reading the works of professional historians is one of the most rewarding ways of broadening students’ thinking about History. However, this can be a problematic undertaking! Historians will often present differing views on the same topic, leaving the reader bewildered as to what to believe. Nevertheless, thinking about seemingly differing arguments can be an enriching experience in itself. If we read actively, and from an informed viewpoint, our thinking processes are stimulated and we develop greater understanding.

Remember, whenever you read something written by a professional historian, he or she is likely to be trying to convey a particular view.  Historians like to advance arguments, based on their own research, almost as an invitation to others to reflect on and question their conclusions. Debates between academics are sometimes played out in historical journals or other published works, or even in newspaper articles or on television. This is how each generation of historians hopes to get nearer to the truth of what happened in the past, and why. You have only to read some reviews of new historical works to see how argumentative and deliberately provocative some historians can be!

So, when confronted by a piece of academic historical writing, you should:

  1. Begin by identifying the author’s particular viewpoint. What is the overall argument in relation to the topic being studied? To appreciate this, it is usually necessary to read a substantial chunk of writing. Argument is rarely contained in one sentence and, for example, looking at the first sentence of a paragraph in the hope of understanding the author’s overall view, is likely to be inadequate and even potentially misleading. Sometimes an opening line is qualified, or even challenged, later in the same paragraph, so careful reading is essential.
  2. Be on the lookout for ‘views within views’. These are sometimes referred to as sub-arguments. They too need thinking about, but not until the overall argument has been assimilated and carefully considered
  3. Form an opinion on the historian’s argument by applying what you already know about the topic. Is the writing convincing because it corroborates what you already know, or is the view questionable? Although the historian’s argument may challenge your prior thinking, is it written in a convincing way, perhaps using new evidence or providing a logical explanation that you hadn’t thought of before?
  4. Never be afraid to question the historian’s arguments. Even though ‘ordinary’ readers are unlikely to have the same breadth of knowledge as the historian, you should read critically. Whilst it would be extremely foolish for you to dismiss a piece of scholarly writing out of hand, some of its premises might be questioned with respect to the evidence, or the emphasis of the argument might be seen as limiting or one-sided. Of course, you might find some parts of an argument more convincing than others, and this too would be a valid response.
  5. Crucially, judge what you read by applying your own contextual knowledge and informed understanding. Without supporting evidence, opinion becomes assertion rather than judgement. Since it is extremely unlikely that a historian would deliberately set out to mislead or present totally inaccurate factual material, your opinion should be based on consideration of the strength of the argument put forward. So, evaluating historical arguments is more about analysing the way in which the historian has used factual material, than analysing the evidence itself. Reading with understanding is not about line-by-line criticism. Historical passages are never ‘convincing’ simply because they contain lots of information or ‘unconvincing’ because much has been omitted. Successful historical evaluation embraces views and arguments, not statements and words.

Any intelligent student should be able to make a supported judgement about the persuasiveness of a passage of historical writing. Of course, the more secure that student’s knowledge and understanding, the easier it becomes to produce an authoritative evaluation. Students of History are often valued in the world of business because they are not easily persuaded by false argument; they have learnt to think for themselves. Evaluating historical writing is one way of developing this important life-skill – try it!

Sally Waller on historians

Sally Waller is an educational consultant who has written and edited textbooks for OUP and other publishers, as well as contributing to the work of professional bodies seeking to advance the teaching of History in schools and colleges. She has many years’ experience as both a History teacher and a senior examiner.