Historical Analysis and Interpretation

Focus: When considering the study of history, what does ‘interpretation’ mean, and why is it important?

Reflection: What new ideas or concepts did I learn? What teaching practices or concepts did the reading reinforce? What questions or concerns do I still have about ’interpretation’?

The American Historical Society created an explanation of historical thinking skills, including interpretation. The following is adapted from the American Historical Society’s post “Historical Thinking Skills.”

Our society and educational system has taught you (and much of the world’s population) that there is only one right answer or one right historical interpretation. This idea is reinforced by the use of textbooks, which tend to present history as a “succession of facts marching to a settled outcome.” It is difficult to learn history without such books, but they, nonetheless, give a misleading sense of what history is and almost prevent the acquisition of historical thinking skills. For this reason, I have tried to develop projects that incorporate historical thinking skills. In fact, history is never as self-evident as it is presented in textbooks. If you compared world history textbooks, you would find that authors disagree a lot on how to present material. Historians also disagree a lot on how facts are to be interpreted so that while “common knowledge” suggests that history is about what happened in the past, history actually consists of a dialog among writers, scholars, and the general public not only about what happened, but about how and why it happened and what its effects were. Thus, history is not just about remembering answers, it involves following and evaluating arguments and arriving at usable conclusions based on what evidence you have. The facts, themselves, are not usually what historians argue about. We know that the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. The controversy and debate is around what factors led the Japanese to bomb Pearl Harbor or whether or not President Roosevelt knew about it in advance. In answering the first question, one can look at both “short-term” and “long-term” causes. The “short-term” causes were the immediate factors behind the attack, Japanese isolation, their fear of running out of oil, their frustrations with American demands that they pull their troops out of China. “Long-term” causes might consider the Japanese desire to construct an “Asia for the Asians,” which essentially meant an Asia for the Japanese. The Japanese wanted to be recognized as a great imperial power like the United States and the European colonial powers, and were constantly frustrated by the way in which the U.S. and Europe failed to acknowledge what they believed to be their “manifest destiny” (that is, to control China and Southeast Asia). Even when one examines, “long-term” causes, one should remember that there was nothing inevitable about the bombing of Pearl Harbor (or any other historical event). History might have turned out much differently if the US had not moved some of its aircraft carriers (unbeknownst to the Japanese) before the bombing, which allowed them to survive the attack and continue to threaten the Japanese navy.

In short, to be able to engage in historical analysis and interpretation, you should be able to identify the author or source of a piece of evidence and assess its credibility. You should be able to compare and contrast different sets of ideas, values, personalities, behaviors, and institutions. You should be able to differentiate between historical facts and historical interpretations. You should be able to understand that multiple perspectives of the past are possible, even though history is often written from the point of view of winners. You should be able to analyze “cause-and-effect relationships,” understanding that many events probably have multiple causes. In analyzing “cause-and-effect relationships,” you should try to differentiate what happened because of individual action, cultural factors, or pure chance. You should understand that all historical interpretations are tentative and that they might be revised with the discovery of new evidence or by thinking about the problem in a new way. You should be able to evaluate major debates among historians and come to your own conclusions about them. Finally, you should be able to think about how events in the past may be shaping our present.