This paper examines the historian's method of handling evidence and explores some approaches to the improvement of college students' reasoning skills through the analysis of historical documents. The starting point in the development of the reasoning skills should be an exploration of the historian's task and the nature of the evidence, preferably in a small group discussion format. The student must be made to understand that an effective assessment of a piece of evidence can only be made against an informed background. Recognizing that a historical document does not exist in a vacuum, the student must inquire into the events surrounding the piece of evidence under consideration and place it in its social, political, and economic context. A concern for context also necessitates an exploration of the background of the witness whose writings are under consideration in the classroom. The instructor should then raise the question of whether contemporary attitudes or the students' own values influence criticism and understanding of the source. The next step should be an intensified focus on the text itself. Careful attention should be devoted to the words, their meanings, and their implications. One good guideline for students is that they accept as historical fact only those particulars that may be confirmed by the testimony of two or more reliable sources. The instructor should then introduce the concept of reasoned interpretation as inherent in the historian's work. Suggestions for the use of historical documents in the classroom are made. (Author/RM)
Paper presented at the Annual Meeting of the American Historical Association (96th, Los Angeles, CA, December 28-30, 1981).