Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Kent State, Historical Messiness, and Historiography

From the song “Ohio” by Neil Young (performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young)

Gotta get down to it
Soldiers are gunning us down
Should have been done long ago.
What if you knew her
And found her dead on the ground
How can you run when you know?

Tin soldiers and Nixon coming,
We're finally on our own.
This summer I hear the drumming,
Four dead in Ohio.

For those of us who weren’t there in 1970, four college students were killed when the National Guard opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State University in Ohio.

What could we use the above picture for? Is it accurate? What could we argue about the incident, using that photo? What part of the story does it tell? What part of the story is it missing? What other document might have more value?  What can we know about the photographer? For what did/would she use the photo? What effects might this photo have on the school, the different groups, or America-as-a-whole?

During my senior year of college, I took a Historiography course. Nobody had ever taught me about historiography being the study of historians’ methods -- how historians do what they do. I did my senior thesis paper on the Kent State shootings of 1970 thinking that the topic was relatively contemporary and I could find a lot of sources to prove “the answer”.

I read newspaper accounts. Eyewitness accounts. National Guard hearings transcripts. Court records. Commission findings. Life magazine articles. Rock and roll lyrics.

It turns out that the whole thing was kind of a big mess. And hard to piece together.

All that research was an eye-opener to me.(I was a pretty concrete-minded kid) I had an extremely tough time creating a thesis about what really happened and who was at fault for the incident and how that happened. I had wonderful social studies teachers in middle school, high school, and college but I had never put together the ambiguity and multiple perspectives and “grey area” involved in real research.

History is not black and white. It’s grey. And purple. And green. And messy.

Think about the last time you saw a fight or similar incident at school. If you tried to find out what really happened and asked each student who was fighting, several eyewitnesses, nearby adults, administrators who took statements, viewed the campus cameras, and watched the phone video footage, sometimes you can’t STILL come up with the absolute coherent picture then either.

Now, try to piece together the Kent State shooting, where hundreds of people were around doing hundreds of different things without the video cameras or cell phones.

Now try to piece together something like the crisis in Ukraine or the sinking of the south Korean ferry -- or Apartheid or the Cuban Revolution and you will see how complicated the world really is.

People are complicated.

As we wind down to the end of the year, folks with AP exams or EOCs are done or finishing with their content. There are many different things you can do with these last few weeks (and you probably LOVE the freedom to teach what you want, instead of running at breakneck speed through the pacing guide).

If you’re up for a new challenge, I’d like to propose some historiography work with students. It can be as big as a traditional research thesis paper or as small as examining the author’s perspective and background to read the “invisible text”. Invisible text is the perspective -- where the author is coming from -- socially, politically, economically, geographically, etc. It can be practicing reading and using documents for different theses. It can just be imagining effects of certain documents.

Give the kids two different takes on an event and ask them which is a better perspective, which is the “right” answer, or the “real truth”. Then, engage them in a conversation about the differing usefulness of various sources. What is the value in each source? What can you use it for? What might it argue for?

Any thoughts on historiography at the end of the year? I’d love to hear from you!

1 comment:

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