If “level one” questions
allow you to identify the nature of the document and its author, “level
two” questions allow you to probe behind the essentials facts. Now that
you know who wrote the document, to whom it is addressed, and what it is
about, you can begin to try to understand it. Since your goal is to learn
what this document means, first in its historical context and then in your
current context, you now want to study it from a more detached point of
view, to be less accepting of “facts” and more critical in the questions
you pose. At the first level, the document controlled you; at the second
level, you will begin to control the document.
1. Why was this document written?
Everything is written for a reason. You make notes to yourself to remember, you send cards to celebrate and sympathize, you correspond to convey or request information. The documents that historians traditionally study are more likely to have been written for public rather than private purposes, but not always. Understanding the purpose of a historical document is critical to analyzing the strategies that the author employs within it. A document intended to convince will employ logic; a document intended to entertain will employ fancy; a document attempting to motivate will employ emotional appeals. In order to find these strategies, you must know what purpose the document was intended to serve.
2. What type of document is this?
The form of the document is vital to its purpose. You would expect a telephone book to be alphabetized, a poem to be in meter, and a work of philosophy to be in prose. The form or genre in which a document appears is always carefully chosen. Genre contains its own conventions, which fulfill the expectations of author and audience. A prose map of how one travels from Chicago to Boston might be as effective as a conventional map, but it would not allow for much of the incidental information that a conventional map contains and would be much harder to consult. A map in poetry would be mind-boggling!
3. What are the basic assumptions made in this document?
All documents make assumptions that are bound up with their intended audience, with the form in which they are written, and with their purpose. Some of these assumptions are so integral to the document that they are left unsaid, others are so important to establish that they form a part of the central argument.
So far, you have been asking
questions of your document that you can learn directly from it. Sometimes
it is more difficult to know who composed a document than who the intended
audience was. Sometimes you have to guess at the purpose of the document.
But essentially questions on level one and level two are questions with
direct answers. Once you have learned to ask them, you will have a great
deal of information about the historical document at your disposal. You
will then be able to think historically-that is, to pose your own questions
about the past and to use the material the document presents to seek for
answers. In level three, you will exercise your critical imagination, probing
the materials and developing your own assessment of its value. “Level three”
questions will not always have definite answers; in fact, they are the
kind of questions that arouse disagreement and debate and that make for
lively classroom discussion.
1. Can I believe this document?
To be successful, a document designed to persuade, to recount events, or to motivate people to action must be believable to its audience. For the critical historical reader, it is that very believability that must be examined. Every author has a point of view, and exposing the assumptions of the document is an essential task for the reader. You must treat all claims skeptically. One question you certainly want to ask is, “Is this a likely story?”
2. What can I learn about the society that produced this document?
All documents unintentionally reveal things that are embedded in the very language, structure, and assumptions of the document that can tell you the most about the historical period or event that you are studying.
3. What does this document mean to me?
So What? Other than for the practical purpose of passing your exams and the course, why should you be concerned with historical documents? What can you learn from them? Only you can answer those questions. But you will not be able to answer them until you have asked them. You should demand the meaning of each document you read: what it meant to the historical actors – authors, audience, and society – and what it means to your own society.
Now that you have seen how to unfold the map of a historical document you must get used to asking these questions by yourself. The temptation will be great to jump from level one to level three, to start in the middle, or to pose the questions in no sequence at all. After all, you probably have a ready-made answer to “What does this document mean to me?” But if you develop the discipline of asking all your questions in the proper order, you will soon find that you are able to gain command of a document.