Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Contextualization and Historical Empathy: Seventh-Graders' Interpretations of Primary Documents

Academic journal article Curriculum and Teaching Dialogue

Contextualization and Historical Empathy: Seventh-Graders' Interpretations of Primary Documents

Article excerpt


In 1931, Carl Becker (1935), President of the American Historical Association, addressed an audience of professional historians with a speech titled "Every Man His Own Historian." In his speech, Becker used the anecdote of Mr. Everyman, "an ordinary citizen without excess knowledge" (p. 236), who wakes up one morning to discover the record of an old coal bill of 20 tons, priced at $1,017.20. Instantly, a series of historical events flashes through his mind. He imagines himself ordering the coal last summer from Mr. Smith, who arrived with wagons of coal to deliver to Mr. Everyman's cellar. Later that afternoon, Mr. Everyman visits Mr. Smith to pay his coal bill. Upon greeting Mr. Everyman, Mr. Smith then reviews his business records and announces: "You don't own me any money, Mr. Everyman. You ordered coal here all right, but I didn't have the kind of coal you wanted, and so turned over the order to Mr. Brown. It was Brown who delivered your coal: he's the man you owe" (p. 238). In response, Mr. Everyman visits Mr. Brown, who examining the records of the Private Coal Office, confirms Mr. Smith's testimony that Mr. Brown did indeed sell and deliver the coal. Mr. Everyman then pays his bill, and upon returning home, he scours his own documents and finds Mr. Brown's bill, for 20 tons of stove coal, priced at $1,017.20.

In the story of Mr. Everyman, the purchase records helped solve the question of the unknown coal delivery. Like a historian, Mr. Everyman first mentally reconstructed the occurrence through "the formation in his mind, by artificial extension of memory, of a picture ... of a selected series of historical events--of himself ordering coal from Smith, of Smith turning the order over to Brown, and of Brown delivering the coal to his house" (Becker, 1935, p. 239). Two conflicting records, however, existed: first, the record of Mr. Smith's sale of 20 tons of coal and second, the record of Mr. Brown's delivery of the coal instead. The unaided memory--without the essential comparison of the business ledgers--would have rendered Mr. Everyman useless to resolve the conundrum; thus, Mr. Everyman would have relied exclusively on the "memory [of] any ideal series of events [that] struck his fancy, and thus create a world of semblance quite in accord with his heart's desire (p. 243). As explicated by Becker, historical inquiry necessitates purposeful investigations and analyses of evidence in order to construct sound, plausible narratives.


By reducing history to simple terms, Becker affirms the charge of historians--to safeguard the processes of historical research and reconstruction. The artificial memory of a people depends largely on how, and in what ways, historians seek to represent the past. In unique ways, young students act as Mr. Everyman by attempting to reconstruct local and distant happenings. Their perceptions impact beliefs about themselves, their ancestors, their neighbors, and their world. Without guidance, students may create histories--as demonstrated by Mr. Everyman--by relying on fancy, artificial memory, and their hearts' desires. Becker's anecdote reveals how all people (regardless of whether or not they choose to become professional historians) engage in some form of historical inquiry.

Part of the mental acrobatics performed through historical thinking involves the careful reading and analysis of primary documents. Thinking in-time necessitates the mental leap from the present into the past. The deciphering of antiquated texts employs a host of skills appearing much like impossible circus tricks. Historical reasoning often is referred to as adductive, meaning the process of hypothesizing answers until the most probable fit is obtained (Wineburg, 2001). The contextual skills employed during primary document analysis require a delicate balance of rehearsed performance and experimentation. The historian's bag of tricks contains an array of textual decoding devices designed to assist the historian in analyses. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed


An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.