As a teacher I am a big fan of assigning short analytical reviews. At some point during the year my students must review websites, articles by historians, historical documentaries and Hollywood movies. Students in my AP and Civil War courses must write numerous reviews of short articles by a wide range of historians. I have them do this to better understand what goes into a scholarly historical interpretation as well as preparation for their own research projects. It goes without saying that our students must be instructed as to how to go about writing such a critique. My students have to learn to…
read the publication carefully.
take extensive notes.
be aware of the primary sources utilized and how those sources are interpreted.
explain the author’s argument to the best of their ability and in their own words.
explain both the strengths and weaknesses of the interpretation to the best of their ability based on their understanding of the evidence and the relevant secondary sources.
At no time are my students told to assess the authors themselves. As far as I am concerned it is irrelevant to the scope of the assignment. I can’t imagine one of my student doing so, but if they handed a review in that included references to “political correctness”, “revisionism”, or “liberal bias” I would immediately hand the paper back with a grade of Incomplete. It would get such a grade not because I agree or disagree, but because the student apparently does not understand what it means to evaluate a historical interpretation.
I share this in light of the comments that I’ve read on this site and so many others in response to PBS’s recent documentary about Robert E. Lee. I find it funny that folks actually believe that such references convey any real significance when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the narrative as well as the commentary offered by the historians. It may come to a shock to some, but it is possible to disagree with one another when thinking about the past and doing history. There are legitimate disagreements that one can have over last night’s documentary. For example, one of the most common criticisms has to do with the postwar portrayal of Lee as well as the amount of attention given to Lee’s faith. That’s a legitimate criticism so make the point to the best of your ability.
So, go ahead and give it a try. You know who you are. Next time you feel tempted to resort to such references take a step back and regroup. Take the necessary time to elaborate and explain your main points. Reference specific primary and secondary sources and try to engage in a serious discussion. Who knows, you may end up advancing the understanding of all parties.