If you’ve been teaching secondary school history for a while you’ve probably encountered students who tell you that “every primary source is biased.” Some kids really like this phrase, and the idea it represents, because they think it makes them seem sophisticated. As in, “When I was in grade school I believed everything I read. But now I’m older and I know that I should be suspicious of everything I read.” But far from making our students into sophisticates, I believe this idea is profoundly misleading, and actually inhibits them from thinking well about Question Two. In this post I’ll try to explain why I think we should retire the phrase “every primary source is biased,” and I’ll suggest an alternative that I think is much more helpful to our teaching goals.

Question Two: “What Were They Thinking?”

When we teach with the Four Question Method, we start by answering Question One (“What Happened?), and establishing a historical story that we want our students to understand more deeply. Of course that story is full of interesting people, and our curiosity about them cues our students to work on Question Two. We pick a few of the key people in the story and dive into their heads, trying  to figure out, “What were they thinking?” In answering Question Two we try to build “historical empathy:” we try to understand the people of the past on their own terms, and see the world as they saw it. It is important to note that historical empathy is not the same thing as sympathy: we often don’t agree with the people in the past who we attempt to understand. But answering Question Two responsibly requires us to enter into the minds of people who think very differently than we do. We have to set aside our current notions about how the world works, what we value and condemn, and try to understand everything differently. That’s why we say that historical empathy is the opposite of presentism.

And most of the time we use primary source documents to explore Question Two. In order to understand what people in the past were thinking, we look at what they wrote or said, and practice the thinking skill of interpretation. There’s a lot to be said about how to do that; some has been said by Gary in a previous blog post, some has been said by Doug Lemov and his co-authors in the excellent book Reading Reconsidered, and some of it is said by Gary and me at our 4QM workshops. And there are, of course, many other teachers and thinkers with good resources and ideas on using primary source documents in the classroom. But in this post I’m less interested in technique, and more interested in the attitudes that students bring to their work with primary sources.

Students As Cynics

The problem with teaching students that “every primary source is biased” is that it turns them all into cynics, and short-circuits their ability to build historical empathy. It turns them into cynics by teaching them that no document can be taken sincerely, at face value, as an honest record of someone’s thoughts. Columbus had to please the King and Queen who funded his voyage, so he must have exaggerated the richness of the Caribbean islands: his letter to the Spanish monarchs is “biased.” George Fitzhugh and John C. Calhoun were slave owners, so their their lengthy treatises arguing that slavery was in fact good for enslaved people are “biased.” The signers of the Declaration of Independence were writing to justify their revolution, so their description of the conflict between the colonies and the crown is “biased.” And once students have discovered or declared the “bias” in a primary source, they feel entitled to dismiss it or feel smugly superior to it. At its worst, this cynical search for bias in all sources can lead students to give up on the idea of understanding the past at all, deciding that since every source is biased there’s no way to determine what happened, what people were thinking, or why things happened as they did.

Of course there’s a kernel of truth at the bottom of this idea of pervasive bias. Marx was right that most of the time where we stand on political issues is correlated with where we sit in the social structure, and of course people sometimes lie in documents. But the problem with making these observations into universals is that it relieves students of the hard work of understanding people who think differently from themselves. As Bruce Lesh has noted in his book about teaching historical thinking skills, “students equate ‘bias’ with either lying or ignorance” (123). The vast majority of the documents we read in history class are not lies, and the vast majority of their authors were not ignorant. What makes people like Columbus, Calhoun, and the signers of the Declaration interesting is precisely that they were smart, engaged people who were sincere in their beliefs. How could that be? What were they thinking?

Assume Sincerity

The first step in answering that question responsibly is to approach our primary sources with an attitude compatible with learning: Assume sincerity. Absent specific evidence to the contrary, we should assume that the authors of the primary documents we study were sincere when they wrote them. When we approach these documents we have to start fresh. We have to set aside anything we think we know about the people we’re studying, set aside our present-day assumptions about them and the society they inhabited, and give them the intellectual courtesy of assuming that they meant what they said.

Actually doing this can be a revelation. At a recent 4QM workshop Gary and I were working with a small group of teachers reading a short excerpt from Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan. (We picked it deliberately because it’s extremely challenging, and we wanted these adult teachers to feel like our young students typically do when we assign them to read primary documents.) There was a teacher in our group who assumed that because he wrote in the seventeenth century Hobbes would describe a religious basis for political authority, and another who assumed that because he was on the side of the Royalists in the English Civil War Hobbes was in favor of hereditary monarchy and aristocracy. But when we actually did a close reading of the source, everyone was able to see that neither assumption is actually supported in the text, and in fact, both assumptions are wrong. (Hobbes was a social contract theorist, not an advocate of a divine political order, and he had no particular preference for heredity as a system of selecting a head of state.) Actually understanding Hobbes required us to assume his sincerity, then to read him under that assumption, and then to interpret his words. We should teach our students the same approach to primary sources.

“Every Source Has A Point Of View”

In the introduction to this post I said I’d suggest an alternative to “every source is biased,” and here it is. Try teaching your students that “every source has a point of view.” Here’s an analogy that you might use to distinguish the difference. Imagine a basketball game between the Boston Celtics and the Golden State Warriors. The game is in Boston, and there’s a team of three refs on the floor calling the game. Two refs are calling the game honestly, as they see it. They will both miss some calls, because they can’t see everything all the time. Depending on where they are on the floor and what’s happening in front of them they might not see one of the Celtics players commit a foul, and the game will go on with no call. The Warriors might then feel aggrieved: they deserved that foul call and they didn’t get it. But those two refs aren’t biased. They just couldn’t see the foul from their point of view. They might also have honest points of view about the style of play or the tempo of the game, but their opinions on those matters would not constitute bias, even though they might disagree with each other and/or with other observers of the same game. The third ref is actually biased. He wants the Celtics to win, and he calls fouls on the Warriors for things that he also sees Boston players do, but chooses not to call. He calls the Warriors coach for a technical for coming onto the floor, but deliberately ignores it when the Celtics coach does the same thing.

Now I can already hear the psychology teachers and postmodern theorists sharpening their pens to tell me that the third ref is likely to believe himself to be honest, and that his lack of awareness doesn’t make him any less biased. That’s an argument for another day. My point here is that most of the people we read in history class are like the first two refs. Most of our primary sources are not deliberately written to deceive anyone, and achieving true understanding of their authors is only possible if we take them at their word. This is much harder than taking the cynical approach that “every source is biased.” But if we are to truly teach our students to truly grapple with hard ideas that they disagree with, we have to invest in understanding them first.