Some Ideas about Teaching



Sources and interpretations


QUOTE(alison denton @ Dec 9 2005, 08:47 PM) *

Is all history really interpretations?
is there any difference between 'sources' and 'interpretations'?
answers on a postcard .......


This was a brilliant post, Alison, very thought-provoking as well as insightful.

For years I've banged on about this, that a 'source' is not an 'interpretation', although - as you so brilliantly draw out - they do overlap.

As I see it:

A 'Source' is just what the word properly means - an origin. It is one of the original (primary) pieces of information which inform us about what was happening at the time. Of course it comprises opinions as well as facts, but it is essentially a building brick, which historians/commentators/interpreters later use to build their constructs. The work you do on sources is therefore, about reliability, usefulness, relevance.

To 'Interpret' is also as its name implies - to expound, to make intelligible, to represent the meaning of. It MUST for me be a comment upon events. Now, of course, sometimes people are beginning to comment upon events VERY close to the time - for instance, newspapers interpret the events of their time almost immediately they are happening. Also, as Alison so succinctly pointed out, people's interpretations are based at least as much on where they are coming from themselves as they are on what was actually happening upon which they are commenting. Interpretations therefore also change through time, as the degree of hindsight and our own personal situation changes. I have made some attempts to supply the facts about the changing interpretations of different events on my website (e.g. Causes of WWI, Versailles, Cold War, Hitler, Haig).

Thus historians can do two things with interpretations:
a. they can JUDGE the truth of the interpretation. Was the commentator right in his interpretation? This, for me, is where history is GREAT, because it is always therefore a huge argument.
b. you can USE them as a bank of ideas/ foils to build your own personal interpretations.

There are clearly, of course, going to be some things that you can use in BOTH ways. You could use, say, the British Gazette comments on the General Strike, firstly as a SOURCE, to find out what was happening and their results and impact at the time, but also as an INTERPRETATION, which you can ask the pupils to challenge. The debate about whether something is a source OR an interpretation is therefore utterly sterile. What makes something a 'source' or an 'interpretation' is not the object of your attention per se, but WHAT YOU AS AN HISTORIAN ARE DOING WITH IT.

My constant beefs are:
1. teachers and especially examiners are just not clear enough about what is going on here. Examiners, in particular, continually get the two processes muddled up.
2. the result is that - where imho REAL History is about interpretation, and what do YOU think is going on, and have you any prescient comments on these events, and what insight has this given you into living your own life - 'interpretation' in so many textbooks and exams has deteriorated erroneously into an endless series of comments about accuracy and utility, origin, context and motive. It is equivalent to judging a Turner masterpiece, not on the impact of the painting, but on the brushwork in the top left corner and the chemical constituents of the oils. Thus the discipline is demeaned and real creativity is restricted.

Posted on: Dec 10 2005, 12:26 PM





To cite this page, use:   CLARE, JOHN D. (2005/2006), 'Sources and Interpretations',  at Greenfield History Site (