Tuesday, December 24, 2013

More on Bias

Student: “This source is biased. It’s really not a useful source. We need to find a better one.”  

Students and, likely, some teachers, as well, often misunderstand the concept of bias. As history teachers, it is important that we recognize that all accounts of the past are colored with bias.

The student quoted above, if taken literally, seems to be suggesting that some sources contain bias and others do not. If we can find some unbiased sources, this line of reasoning goes, then surely we can learn what really happened in the past.

Studying the past, however, is much more complicated. (By the way, I think we signal a simplistic epistemology when we use multiple choice questions, even ‘good’ (?) ones, to assess students’ understanding of the past.)

Lang makes the point that teachers perpetuate this view by asking students IF a source is biased. More appropriately, teachers ought to be asking students to find the biases in a source. Once biases are detected, the real work begins. Students need to be challenged to consider the significance of the biases, to account for them when making judgments about the author, the source, and, ultimately, the historical question that is being studied.    

In my previous post, I said that I enjoyed listening to the home announcers broadcast Phillies games because of their biases. The national broadcasters, whom I avoided, weren’t unbiased. They had different biases.

If, over time, it became apparent to me that the home announcers were allowing their biases to cause them to distort how they were describing the events on the baseball diamond, then, as a baseball fan who cared about accuracy, I would likely find new announcers.

Bias may lead to distortions, but this is not automatically the case. The claims contained in a source need to be judged against the evidence they rely on in order for the impact of bias to be evaluated.

When our students detect bias, which is not always easy to do, we must encourage them to see bias detection as part of a larger set of intellectual moves performed by an historian. Yes, historians do search for bias. But they do more than that. They consider the meaning of the bias, thinking about how it not only reveals the author but also the author’s surroundings in space and time.        

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