Last night I found a website called Rhetorica that had a page dedicated to discussing media bias. Many of the core ideas on this page overlap with some of the big ideas I have been discussing about the discipline of history.
Specifically, I think, I can tie some of the points made on the Rhetorica page to some of my recent posts discussing social constructions, bias, and source work.
Whenever we give students sources- all sources not just primary sources- it is important for us to model and, ultimately, expect that students will conduct a point of view analysis to unlock meaning from these sources.
The first sentence on the Rhetorica page that I linked to above is this: There is no such thing as an objective point of view. This fact is fundamental to the discipline of history. The author of the Rhetorica page continues,
“No matter how much we may try to ignore it, human communication always takes place in a context, through a medium, and among individuals and groups who are situated historically, politically, economically, and socially. This state of affairs is neither bad nor good. It simply is. Bias is a small word that identifies the collective influences of the entire context of a message.”
When we give students sources, or when they find their own, they need to have an awareness of, or be helped to see, this fundamental, that there is no such thing as an objective, or neutral, point of view.
When we give students sources, we want them to think about what’s below the surface. But to do that, they must use what’s visible, and they must use their knowledge. This process is challenging because it is inference based.
Both of these images, the iceberg and the plant roots, help to illustrate visually that if students are only focused on what’s visible, often the words on the page, they are not focusing on what is beneath the surface. And it is what’s beneath the surface, where meaning making occurs.
Let’s turn our attention back to the source that I was looking at yesterday, Scheurl’s diary entry.
What are some ways to help students penetrate the superficial levels of this source? What are the roots, present but unseen, that underpin this source? Who is Chris Scheurl? How are we to make sense of this source?
Making sense of this source is about more than comprehending its message, though that is an essential part of the process.
We have to understand how this source might provide evidence for various assertions about the past.
Like the iceberg or the plant, we have to wonder about the origins of the source, what brought it into being.
My analysis of this source focused on the following ways it might be used as evidence, revealing to us details about
-the elite------------> Not everyone is society has the same opportunities. What opportunities did this child have?
-how children of the elite were raised
-a well situated father’s view of parenting
-the material wealth of those in the elite→ where they lived, how they lived, what they ate,
-conceptions of childhood. What does it mean to be a 5 or 6 year old, living in a prosperous home, in Nuremberg in 1538?
-the intellectual life of a well to do man living in Nuremberg in 1538. What were his private thoughts, hopes/dreams/fears?
-the role that writing played in this man’s life. How often did he journal? What did he focus on?
The above notes reveal, I think, the act of digging deeper, of not treating a source as a self evident statement of facts.
(Note: I spent as much time on this one source as students have to complete an entire AP Europ DBQ that includes a dozen sources!)