Cultivating Skepticism: Teaching Students to Distinguish Evidence from Argument


Handing out a reading assignment to my students can be a risky business. As I am the figure of authority in the room (well, maybe I flatter myself), they often take the truth of what I say for granted. This is even more so the case when I hand them an article or document written by some professor or other. But as I’ve written about before, I really don’t want my students to be under the impression that what I say is gospel. I’m instead interested in cultivating doubt, and in teaching them to read critically. (This is one of the reasons I try not to say too much in class. It seems like whenever I open my mouth, student conversation stops, their attention focuses on me, and they start taking notes. They are well-behaved, but compliant doesn’t necessarily equal engaged.)

We’re nearing the end here in AP US History. The exam is in the first week of May, and I only have five classroom hours left with my students before our mandatory review period. Meaning, we’re already at the Reagan Revolution (and we started in the 1500s!). As I was preparing a lecture on the rise of the Conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s, it occurred to me that my students might need to be reminded of the same source analysis skills we worked on on the very first day of class. Here’s why: when I was drafting notes for said lecture, I didn’t have the class textbook with me, so I used this online textbook for reference. The textbook’s chapter on “The Triumph of the Right” addresses the role of George Wallace and the segregationists in the South in the “conservative ascendance” of the 70s and 80s. One aspect of the Conservative movement (and this squared with what I learned in grad school) was a backlash against Brown v. Board’s forced integration of schools.

Interestingly, when I got back to school and reviewed the class textbook (Alan Brinkley’s American History: A Survey), there was no mention of segregation in the chapter dealing with the “New American Right.” Curious.

So instead of delivering a lecture, which I am loath to do anyway, I decided to do a source analysis exercise. I started by asking my students to do a warm up by listing the factors and groups that led to the coalescence of the post-war Conservative movement. Since they’d all read the Brinkley chapter, none of them mentioned opposition to school integration. What did they make, then, I asked of this writer, who asserted that segregation was in fact the motivating factor?

I was genuinely interested in what my students thought of the guy’s argument—he’s a professor at Dartmouth with a PhD from Princeton, but he’s also writing on Politico, which I seem to have the impression of as being, well, rather political. After brainstorming definitions of “evidence” and “analysis/argument,” I asked my students to first identify the author’s thesis, and and then ferret out where he used evidence in support of that thesis, and where he was analyzing his evidence or providing a subjective interpretation. What were some flags that could indicate to the reader that the author was subjectively interpreting rather than stating objective fact? In pairs, students highlighted evidence in one color and analysis in another. Did the author seem to have enough evidence to support his claims?

Students have a pretty difficult time distinguishing evidence from analysis in History class. They tend to think of material presented in History as generally objective. Material that appears in English class, by contrast, falls under the category of subjective. All History is fact while all English is interpretation (a devastating falsehood!). To help disabuse students of this notion, we brainstormed “flags” that might alert the reader to an author’s interpretive voice coming through in an historical text. Sometimes, adverbs and adjectives can signal that the author is interpreting evidence. We focused in on the author’s use of the word “overwhelmingly,” for example. What does “overwhelming” mean? What percentage would constitute an “overwhelming” number? Is this something about which reasonable minds can disagree? And what does that mean for the claim the author is making? Should we trust it automatically, or insist on further proof? We also talked about how the selection of evidence itself can be a matter of interpretation. Historians pick and choose what evidence to include: we hope that professional historians are as ethical as possible and offer their readers evidence that is representative of a larger whole, rather than misrepresenting their sources. But while we hope that, we cannot assume it, and we ought to be skeptical of just about everything we read. (And we ought to look at the author’s credentials, and the credentials of the site on which the article is published.)

Students seemed to find that the most frustrating part of doing this exercise was that it suggested that they can’t trust anything that they read, and that everything is a matter of interpretation. Annoying though that may be, I think it’s more honest than the alternative: that their textbook/teacher always tells the whole truth and nothing but the truth.


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