We history teachers often ask bad questions, and this blog post is about a particular type of bad question that is very common in our field — I used to ask them myself with alarming frequency. Here’s an example:

“Were the causes of the American Revolution primarily political or primarily economic?”

Questions like this are bad for two reasons. First of all, they’re ambiguous. Are we asking what most supporters of the American Revolution were thinking? Then we’re asking Question Two (“What were they thinking?”), and we should say so: “Were most revolutionaries motivated primarily by a political defense of their natural rights, or an economic desire to preserve their wealth?”

Or are we asking what underlying political and economic conditions made the revolution more likely in that time and place? In that case we’re asking Question Three (“Why then and there?”), and we should say so: “What political and economic conditions in the thirteen colonies made revolution more likely by the 1770s?”

The second reason why these types of questions are bad is because they’re impossible to answer honestly. Gary has a great analogy that illustrates this problem. “Were the causes of the American Revolution primarily political or primarily economic?” is like asking, “Is the primary biological system in the body the respiratory system or the circulatory system?” Of course both the respiratory system and the circulatory system work together to keep you alive; neither one is “primary.” Complex historical events are similar: the American Revolution had political and economic motivations and causes that worked together, and pretending that students can separate them and declare one of them “primary” is silly. Students can interpret documents and events to determine what some revolutionaries were thinking, and students can build social science models that include different explanatory factors. Teaching them to do both of those things is the heart of our mission.

So take a look at the essay questions you have asked your students so far this year. If you’re like me you’ve probably got at least one or two that fit this type. Do yourself and your students a favor and revise them so that they’re both clear and honest. They’ll appreciate your efforts to engage them in an intellectual task they can both comprehend and complete, and you’ll appreciate how much easier it is to evaluate their work. Both results will be primarily great.

J. B.