- Bias: Dialogues are founded on the premise that every piece of historical writing is an interpretation. I did not need Sean Lang (Teaching History No 73 1993) to tell me that, as I had already been operating on that basis for fifteen years before his article appeared. Bias may be deliberate (in a ‘spin-doctored’ political tract), or the result of simple error (Lang gives a lovely example of Macaulay confusing two different William Penns); or simply our old friend Confirmation Bias at work. I say ‘old friend’ though, incredibly, none of the articles on ‘Interpretations’ in the Historical Association’s magazine ‘Teaching History’ between 1993 and the present mentions the phrase. In my Dialogues I settle on just two ‘biases’ because the essential is that these are ‘Simple Examples’. The example about Witte is taken from my ZigZag dialogues; For my former colleagues at Tasker Milward VC Comprehensive I wrote an A Level piece on Henry VII’s foreign policy from English and French perspectives (which OFSTED, not apparently aware that ‘We can’t possibly allow this’ liked a lot!); when teaching at The Downs Prep School I had Hastings from Norman and Saxon point of view, Crusades from Christian and Muslim points of view, and the Hundred Years’ War from French and English points of view. At Dhirubhai Ambani in Mumbai I continued the same practice with IGCSE and IB students, dealing with 1857 (sepoy/British); Russia 1905 (Czar/Father Gapon); Rise of Stalin (Stalin/Trotsky) and so on. I should make a special mention of my I Treaty of Versailles piece in which I offer Pro German and Wilsonian perspectives. All the children can see the pro-German side, (‘stab in the back’ etc) but even my brilliant young Indians were foxed by the Wilsonian perspective (‘all sides to blame for war’ etc). I concluded that political correctness had been drummed into them so effectively that it was invisible! To establish bias I use pairs of emotive words ‘just/wicked’, ‘stupid/wise’, ‘stern/cruel’ and so on. Here is an example from my Dialogue on Russia before the 1905 Revolution:
- To deal with the severe problems facing Russia the Tsar needed to be a man of great understanding and ability, and he did his best.
- To deal with the severe problems facing Russia Czar Nicholas needed to be a man of great understanding and ability, but sadly he was neither.
Here the Monarchist version is the first one. ‘Tsar’ is the more Russified transliteration representing the anti modernist stance of Nicholas, and ‘he did his best’ is the best you can say for him. ‘Czar’ with the resonance of ‘Caesar’ is more characteristic of the outward looking strand in the Russian governmental class, and so appropriate for a Witte-esque account such as this. It is regretful in tone rather than scathing: a Bolshevik account would have been much ruder than ‘sadly he was neither’. I might add that all my main lessons deal with Interpretations AND Content, which enables me to do both things more effectively than would be the case if one had to turn aside from narrative to a lesson or group of lessons specially dedicated to ‘Interpretations’. Indeed I would suggest that set-piece lessons like Kate Hammond’s, or the one by Jane Card on the execution of Lady Jane Grey, though excellent in themselves, run a risk of creating an epistemological cordon sanitaire separating them from other lessons (in which things are true because Sir or Miss or the book says so).
Continues on next page…