Bias Bugaboo

July 28, 2009 - 3:59 PM

It's a blue sky day in Iowa.  The sort of blue that frequently bows across western landscapes, but is more often muted by humidity in our corner of the Midwest.   I need to head to the farmer's market for salsa ingredients, but decided to first start the day in the gazebo, cup of coffee on the shelf to my left, our red heeler, Sage, lying by my chair. 

This morning I contemplate a problem that seems all but endemic in how students perceive the nature of historic evidence.   British researchers, American researchers, Portuguese researchers all have identified the problem.  It is this:  When students learn that historic sources/evidence have authors and that those authors have particular perspectives, students often react by deciding that such evidence is hopelessly tainted by that perspective.  The assumption follows that since all sources are untrustworthy, historians' interpretations of those sources must be undefendable.   

Bruce VanSledright situates this student reaction within what he calls the "interpretive paradox" that lies at the heart of how we construct history (2002).  The paradox is that historians' claims are human interpretations of human interpretations of events.  Denis Shemilt of Great Britain has his own name for this conundrum; he calls it the "hazard of infinite regress" and compares the construction of historic claims to the construction of a house in a swamp.  The foundation pilings never reach bedrock; they can only reach a point of stability to support a particular structure at a particular moment in time (1987).  Peter Lee, labeled one dimension of the student misunderstanding of the paradox a case of treating evidence as Testimony: the past is reported either well or badly.  To determine which camp a piece of evidence falls into, students use a simple binary criteria; a source is either "right or wrong" rather than topical or perspectival (1993).  

The interesting thing about this student misconception is that it seems to accompany growth in awareness about the nature of evidence, namely that evidence is created by people whose perspectives and motives must be taken into account if we are to make accurate use of their records or artifacts.  Bruce VanSledright articulated this eloquently in his 2002 descriptions of working with 5th grade students.  By having the students explore a mystery in colonial history that cannot be solved given the available evidence, he hoped the students would learn that there is no factual single story of the past magically pre-existing in a book.  He hoped the students would come to understand that history is an interpretive process in which claims are considered more or less defendable based on their relationship to evidence.  Instead, the students exchanged one misconception for another.  While they were at first oblivious to the authors of evidence and hence uncritically took everything they read at face value, once the students realized evidence has a human source, they skeptically decided nothing could be believed. 

In her 2003 essay, Ruth Sandwell addresses this issue.  She describes activities she uses in her college history courses to move students past the paradox pothole. 

What does all this mean for Bringing History Home, for teaching history in grades K-5?  I've reached the conclusion it means we need to purge history instruction of the words "bias" and "reliability", at least when we are discussing evidence (or historian's accounts -- but I'll save that related issue for another meditation.)   I propose we replace the banished terms with concepts such as "perspective" and "values" and "experiences".  And that we always place responsibility for how to use evidence in the hands of the reader rather than the author.  By wondering, "What can we ask of this document (or letter or image)?"  rather than "What does this document tell us?", we never have to enter territory where we discard a document purely on the grounds that its information is tainted by "bias".  It's only tainted if we ask the wrong questions. 

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