Skepticism and Historical Authority

Reading student work elicits all manner of emotions, but given time and support to do it properly I like it. I had better, given that my basic goal is to deliver a continuous stream of feedback to my students while having them write and revise as much as I can genuinely respond to in a semester.

This cycle offers two advantages. First, having students write regularly gives them opportunities to develop transferrable communication skills that people often use to justify teaching fields like history, but then don’t always actually teach. I like to put substance behind my words. Second, picking up on John Warner’s dictum that writing is thinking, having my students write gives me a good sense of what they are picking up and where I can help.

Today, for instance, I opened a class with discussion of one of their quiz questions from last week where many people uncritically repeated a claim found in ancient sources that one of the Ptolemaic pharaohs started the decline of the dynasty in part because his insatiable lust let him be ruled by his mistress. I pointed out that the way in which the sources (and more than one historian, let alone the students) talk about this make it sound like the problem is that he listened to what a woman had to say, rather than that she and her brother were (perhaps) using her relationship to get wealthy. Thus the entire episode, should we accept it, is about corruption at court, not that a woman was involved in making decisions.

This is a fine distinction, perhaps, but an important one that offers opportunities to inspect our own biases. Moments like this happen quite frequently, and regular written assignments give opportunities to catch and talk about issues that would otherwise slip right by.

Today’s example comes from an upper-level class with a lot of history majors and other interested folks, meaning that there is a relatively high baseline for basic skills and skepticisms, though there still remains a tendency that is more common to intro classes: deference to historical authority.

Students in my lower-level survey courses struggle with source analyses. In part they lack sufficient context, but I think that deference is a more pernicious and deeper-rooted problem, and the only remedy is “more history” (delivered in the voice of Christopher Walken, of course). Students weren’t there, so to speak, and the source was, at least in theory, so the source must be right. So too when they read history books they often default to reading for “how it was” than “what argument is being made,” and then to the professor and down the line. When students are coming from history testing regimes in high school that prioritize factual knowledge and at best the facsimile of an argument, then they have to be taught skepticism with regard to history that might come instinctively to other parts of life. This credulity is a matter of conditioning and experience, not intellect.

I don’t have statistical evidence support this observation, let alone answers, but it strikes me as curious that in an age seemingly defined by conspiracy theories and a resurgence of skepticism of things that can be tested, there is nevertheless a deference to history, a topic that by definition cannot. Even more curious is when “research” begins and ends with Wikipedia, or perhaps worse, when it entails carefully triangulating internet sites that echo each other as sources of legitimacy.

Learning to question historical sources––not to mention claims of historical authority––critically and carefully therefore not an idle pastime, but a critical life skill. Just because someone “was there” doesn’t mean that what he or she produced is accurate. Nor does an appeal to history automatically lend authority to a position, particularly if it is based on shoddy use of evidence. There is only so much that can be done in one class and no school is going to re-write its curriculum around history any time soon, but learning to think this way (skeptically, critically, carefully) is the most important skill a student can take away from any history class.

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