What Does It Mean to Make Inferences?

Introduction

Wie es eigentlich gewesen,” declared Leopold von Ranke. Despite many successive and successful intellectual assaults on the axioms of this methodology, it remains the guiding principle and aspiration of historians today. The main goal of the historian’s craft is still to report things as they are (Anthony, 1994). However, historians are not time travelers, and the only way to pierce the murky veil of time is through the imperfect crystal ball spun from a patchwork of sources. Consequently, the use of sources and historical evidence to dutifully reconstruct what likely happened in the past is the bread and butter of the historian’s craft. From Herodotus and Thucydides, to the historians of today, the use of a combination of primary and secondary sources to answer one’s inquiry question about the past stands to be the only constant in the methodology of a historian (Carr, 1961).

While the objective of classroom history is not to create little historians, it – at the very least – aspires to convey and inculcate a host of transferrable skills to students. The value of these skills should not be understated. The historical discipline was a product of a series of intellectual developments during the 18th and 19th century, and it was closely intertwined with that of state-formation and nationalism. This cozy relationship led to the birth of academic history in the German universities as a means of training civil servants by heightening one’s sensibilities towards competing narratives, a multitude of sources, and the need to piece them together into a single coherent narrative with causal links (Shotwell, 1939). The value of source-based skills does not lie in the training of historians, but rather the honing of critical thinkers who can make sense of an increasingly complex world around them.

While there is no single prescribed “historian’s process”, a commonality that runs across all historical work is the act of drawing inferences through the examination of sources. It is a foundational part of the discipline, yet it is also a skill that is often neglected when it comes to teaching it in the classroom; writing frameworks are always brought up but inferences are rarely taught. This is likely a product of the apparent irreducible complexity of the skill, leading many to pass it off as a thought process that cannot be scaffolded and dissected to any meaningful degree.[i] As a result, the ability to make inferences was relegated to the innate ability of the student, with minimal actual guidance on the thought processes behind making inferences - and a lot of emphasis on how a paragraph presenting that inference should look like. This notion of irreducible complexity permeates the way we teach in the classroom, and the way we assess for this skill. Aside from the problems with the way the process of drawing inferences is being laid out in the classroom, there are also wider problems with the way the skill is currently situated within the historical inquiry process, which in turn influence how “inference questions” are asked.

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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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