Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 8 of 10

Confusing the order in which historians do their work may not seem especially important, but it is related to a more fundamental issue: The misconception that sources should be evaluated for “bias” or “reliability.” This implies that some sources are objective and unbiased, and the historian’s job is to find those and discard all others in order to get at the truth. But historians do not evaluate sources for bias in this way, and they certainly do not reject sources because of their bias. The bias of source can only be determined with regard to a question (i.e., as part of the process of inquiry); a source in itself cannot be biased, and its potential and limitations only became clear once a question is asked of it.

Consider speeches made by leaders of the PAP or Barisan Sosialis in the 1960s. If we want to know what life was like in 1960s Singapore in the 1960s, these provide limited evidence, because their authors are making particular claims in support of their political positions; they would not be useless (and therefore should not be rejected as “biased”), but they would have to be combined with a wide variety of other sources in order to answer the question. However, if what we want to know is how the ideology of each party affected the way they portrayed life in Singapore, then they are outstanding sources—and they are useful precisely because of their bias, not in spite of it: A historian who wants to understand political portrayals of life in Singapore would have chosen these speeches for exactly that reason. Determining the usefulness and limitations of a source (much better terms than “bias” or “reliability”) can only be established within a context of inquiry—that is, when sources are used as evidence to answer a historical question. Source analysis can only be meaningful when combined with the use of sources as evidence; removing from that context makes such exercises meaningless.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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