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Society for History Education

Teaching History through Argumentation


Author(s): Ray W. Karras
Source: The History Teacher, Vol. 26, No. 4 (Aug., 1993), pp. 419-438
Published by: Society for History Education
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/494466
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TeachingHistorythroughArgumentation

Ray W. Karras
Educational Consultant

HISTORY TEACHERSoften urge their studentsto make arguments.


"Reports,"summariesand otherproductionsof rote memorizationare presumablyless welcome. These teachersmay agree with JohnStuartMill's
"So essentialis this disciplineto a realunderargumentfor argumentation:
standingof moral,and humansubjects,that if opponentsof all important
truthsdo not exist, it is indispensableto imaginethem, andto supplythem
with the strongestargumentswhich the most skillful devil's advocatecan
conjureup."' We might,then, expect thatteachersof historywould teach
theirstudentshow to constructargumentsabout"humansubjects."
However, it seems thatteachersseldom do this. Educationalresearcher
David N. Perkinsfinds that studentsfrom high school throughgraduate
school and beyondtypicallyfail to use informalreasoningin whathe calls
"other-side"arguments.Accordingto Perkins,this failuredependsless on
the students'intelligencethan on their instruction."Professors,"he says,
"rarelyprovideexplicitguidancein how to developandarguea viewpoint."2
Perkins'findings strikinglyunderlineMill's warningmore than a century
ago that "...untilpeople are again systematicallytrainedto it [argument],
therewill be few greatthinkers,and a low generalaverageof intellect...."3
This paperaddressesthis findingandthis warningby offeringa model for
whichwas developedduringtwenty
teachinghistorythroughargumentation
The
model
includesa teachingmethodandthe
of
classroom
practice.
years
The History Teacher

Volume 26 Number4

August 1993

420

Ray W. Karras

underlyingrationalenecessary to make that method work. I shall first


exemplifythe methodin a classroomexerciseI call charting;this is whatan
ThenI
observermightsee in a historylessontaughtthroughargumentation.
Both method
shallpresentwhatan observermightnot see, the "Rationale."
and rationalediffer from those thatregardhistoryas primarilya narrative
accountto be learnedthroughrotememorization.
Charting an Historical Argument
Chartingis one of a variety of classroom activities that an observer
might see in one or two meetings of a history course taught through
argumentation.The chart on pages 422 and 423 and its accompanying
scenario constitute a composite of many actual Americanhistory class
chartings.In this example we are to suppose that our class is about half
way throughthe school year andhas been chartingargumentsfor several
months on various historicalepisodes. We are also to suppose that the
studentshave been previouslyassigned a text book chapterwhich I shall
call "TheComing of the Civil War."Ourobserverfirst sees eight column
headings or cues displayed across the top of the blackboard,as they
appearin the printedcharton pages 422 and 423. At the blackboard,the
teacher or an experienced student acts as recorderfor the rest of the
class.4The chartprintedherewould, of course,be handwrittenin chalk in
the actualclassroom.
RECORDER:Let's starttodaywith facts. Tell me any facts you remember
from the assignment.Any facts will do to get us started.

The recordermakes these entries in the FACTS column shown as "I.


FACTS"in the printedchart.
A STUDENT: There's the Missouri Compromise.It was in 1820, and
Missouri came in as a slave state, but Maine came in free, and....
RECORDER:Would a map help us here?I thinkthere's one in your text
book.

The recordersketches in the map shown as fact 1, following the specific


instructionsof severalstudents.Hereandthroughoutthe exercise students
refer to their notes and text book. Though it is unlikely at this first
"reading"of the Civil War history that any single studentwill know all
the facts listed, the contributionsof several students make them the
possession of all.
A STUDENT:Here's anotherfact. Therewas the Compromiseof 1850. It
let Californiain as a free state. And they also passed a fugitive slave law.

TeachingHistorythroughArgumentation

421

The recorder enters fact 2 in abbreviated form as shown in the printed chart.
Given the limitations of blackboard space, human handwriting, and class
time, fuller entries are not possible. Nor are they necessary, for everyone in
the class has before him or her the complete assigned reading source of the
facts entered. The same process follows for all entries in the FACT column.
Like fact 2, facts 3, 5, and 8 describe events. Entries 4, 6 and 7 quote primary
sources drawn from more complete citations in the reading.
A STUDENT: One fact we ought to have is the biggest one of all - the
Civil War itself.
RECORDER:Wait a moment. Let's think aboutthat.
ANOTHER STUDENT (after a pause for reflection): Is the Civil War
actuallya fact? I mean, you can't see or touch it. You can only observe the
things that happenedin it.
The class decides not to enter "The Civil War" in the FACTS column for
reasons that will be more fully explained in the "rationale" that follows
this scenario. The charting exercise invites students to make mistakes
with safety; they can correct themselves and each other to, as it were, get
mistakes out of their systems. Mistakes actually entered should be left for
eventual correction by students or by the teacher. It is as valuable to make
correctable mistakes as it is to get everything right the first time.
At this point, eight facts have filled the FACTS column; there is no
blackboard room for more. The observer may wonder if eight facts are
enough, and has seen that they were thrown up at random when the
teacher asked for "any" facts. These features will also be explained in the
"rationale." The class now proceeds to deal with concepts in the "II.
CONCEPTS" column.
RECORDER:Now what are these facts all about?Whatconcepts classify
them?
A STUDENT: I guess they're all about what the text book said coming of the Civil War.That should be our main concept.

the

RECORDER:All right. What concepts can you tell that are parts of this
big one?
The recorder enters "Coming of the Civil War" in the CONCEPT column.
A STUDENT: If you put together facts 4, 5 and 6, they are all about
to classify facts4, 5 and6.
abolitionism.Let's use the concept"abolitionism"

422

Ray W. Karras

CHARTING AN HISTORICAL ARGUMENT


I
Facts

II
Concepts

III
Supporting
Claims

IV
Opposing
Claims

eominig of CW
1. Mo. Comp., 1820

Abolitionismas
Cause of CW

Abolitionism
4,5,6
Maine enteredas
free state
Compromise
1,2,3,8
2. Comp. 1850:
CA free.
Fug. Slave Law
3. Kansas-Nebraska
Westness
Act 1854.
1? 2? 3? 5?
S. Douglas
urged "Popular
Sovereignty"
4. W.L. Garrision:
Const.a "covenant
with deathand an
agreementwith
hell." About
1830
5. JohnBrown raids
in "Bleeding
Kansas"1856
6. Calhoun:Slavery
a "positivegood."
1837
7. Lincoln 1862:
"If I could save
the Union..."
letter to Greeley
8. Crittenden
Compromiseattempt 1861: extend 36030' line.
Lincoln rejected

I. Compromise
failed due to
conflict over
abolitionism

I. Compromise
succeeded
because
Northern
leadership
acceptedit to
save Union
7

II. Conflict over


II. Conflict due
abolitionismin
mainly to
the Westward
Easternslave
Movementcause
states
War

423

Teaching HistorythroughArgumentation

CHARTING AN HISTORICAL ARGUMENT


V
Rebuttal of
Opposing Claims

VI
Hypothesis

VII
Historical
Question

VIII
Inferential
Questions

Conflict over abolitionism was the


main cause of the
Civil War
What was the main
cause of the Civil
War?
I. Lincoln was
uncompromising
8

II. Republicans
accepted slavery
in East slave
states and caused
conflict by
rejectingit in
West.
99?
?. .

(With claimed
reasonI)
Whatdid Lincoln
say in December
1859 aboutJohn
Brown's hanging?

424

RayW. Karras

As the printed chart shows, the recorder enters "Abolitionism" as classifying facts 4, 5 and 6. The process continues with other concepts.
A STUDENT:Look at facts 1, 2, 3 and 8. They are all aboutcompromise.
"Compromise"should be a concept.
A STUDENT: But if you look at it anotherway, most of the facts have
somethingto do with the West - in Missouri,California,Kansasand the
36030' line in the CrittendenCompromise.
A STUDENT:Let's put in a concept of the West. Call it "Westness."
A STUDENT:I thinkthis is all aboutabolitionism.It's notjust the coming
of the Civil War,it's aboutabolitionismin the coming of the War.
A STUDENT: Maybe we've got a hypothesis: Abolitionism caused the
Civil War.
A STUDENT:Wait a minute.If it's all aboutabolitionismandthe cause of
the War,then that"Comingof the Civil War"has to go. We're not talking
abouteverythingthatled up to the Civil War,just abolitionism....
A STUDENT: If we make the hypothesis that abolitionism caused the
Civil War,then we're saying it caused everythingelse, aren'twe?
A STUDENT:Do we mean that abolitionismcaused the Civil War all by
itself?
A STUDENT:We'd bettersay thatabolitionismwas the maincause of the
Civil War.
A STUDENT:But it wasn'tjust abolitionism.I mean, if nobody got mad
aboutabolitionism,there wouldn't have been any War.
A STUDENT:Yes, it was the getting mad aboutit thatcaused the War.It
was the conflict over it. Why don't we make the hypothesis"Theconflict
over abolitionismwas the main cause of the Civil War.?
A STUDENT: So our historicalquestionis, "Whatwas the main cause of
the Civil War?"
A STUDENT: Or we could ask "Was abolitionismthe main cause of the
Civil War?
A STUDENT:Yes, but I like "whatwas the main cause"betterbecause it
leaves us more room. Some otherhypothesesmight turnup.

Teaching History throughArgumentation

425

During this exchange the recorder has made several chart entries. The
overall concept "Coming of CW" has been crossed out or erased and
"Abolitionism as cause of CW" substituted. In column "VI. HYPOTHESIS," "Conflict over abolitionism was the main cause of the Civil
War," and in column "VII. HISTORICAL QUESTION" "What was the
main cause of the Civil War?" have been entered. Things happened
swiftly during this exchange. Students moved inductively across the
chart from facts to concepts to the hypothesis and the main historical
question. Charting cues these orderly leaps by providing places for
everything to be fixed in writing. As we shall see in the "rationale," this
inductive movement is not the only movement possible in a charting
exercise. The class seems to have the centerpiece of an argument, its
hypothesis. However....
A STUDENT: How about a differenthypothesis?Look at all those compromise attemptson the fact list. They didn't seem to do much good. Why
don't we make the hypothesisthatthe main cause of the Civil Warwas the
failure of compromise?
A STUDENT:Or maybe compromiseswere successful. They held off the
war between - let's see - 1820 and 1861, didn't they?
A STUDENT: Or look at that other concept, the "Westness."Maybe we
could say that the main cause of the war was what was happeningin the
West - like in the WestwardMovement we studied a couple of weeks
ago. See how all those compromiseswere aboutthe westwardexpansion
of slavery, and Lincoln said....
THE TEACHER:Hold on! I like everything you say. But just now we
can deal with only one hypothesis at a time, and only partlywith thatone.
Let's go with the abolitionism hypothesis for now. Maybe we can work
on the others later. In fact, here's your assignment for our next class
meeting: see how far you can get in homeworkto charteither the West or
the compromise hypothesis. Your assignment sheet also has a couple of
documents for next time. See if you can use facts from them in your
charts.
The teacher finds an open space on the board to write "Chart West or
chart Compromise. Use new documents." Now the students move deductively back from their hypothesis to find reasons for believing it, for
opposing it, and for rebutting that opposition.
RECORDER:Now why should we believe this hypothesis?We need to
claim reasons, and see if our facts supportthem.

426

RayW. Karras

A STUDENT:Well, we can take the abolitionismconcept and put it with


the compromise concept. We said that our hypothesis means that abolitionismcausedeverythingelse, so we can claim thatit causedthe failureof
compromise. Why don't we claim that compromise failed due to the
conflict over abolitionism?
The recorder enters reasons I and II, as well as their opposing claims and
rebuttals as they occur in this exchange in their appropriate places in
columns III, IV and V on the chart.
A STUDENT: And we can combine abolitionism with the "Westness"
concept, so we get "Conflictover abolitionismin the West caused War."
A STUDENT:How aboutmakingthat "WestwardMovement?"
A STUDENT:I don't know aboutthat.Those facts happenedin the West,
alright,but did they happenin the WestwardMovement?
A STUDENT:I'm not sure. But let's try "WestwardMovement"anyway
because we've alreadystudiedsomethingaboutit. We can always change
it if it doesn't work.
A STUDENT: We'd better put question marks after those facts under
"Westness."I'm not sure they supporta WestwardMovementclaim.
A STUDENT:Now we need an opposing claim. If I don't agree with that
compromise failure claim, I might just claim that it didn't fail at all. It
succeeded.
A STUDENT: In fact, we might already have a fact to support that
opposing claim. In 7, Lincoln practicallysaid to Greeley thathe would do
anything to save the Union, whether it meant freeing the slaves or not.
Why don't we make the opposingclaim "Compromisesucceededbecause
Northernleadershipacceptedit to save the Union?"
A STUDENT: But if Lincoln was so willing to compromise,why did he
reject the CrittendenCompromisethatwe have in fact 8?
A STUDENT:Let's put thatin the rebuttalcolumn:"Lincolnrejectedthe
CrittendenCompromise."
A STUDENT:Thatsoundslike a fact. We need a rebuttalclaim before we
can give facts to supportit.
A STUDENT: Let's say that Lincoln was uncompromising,that he rejected compromise. That goes right against the first opposing claim,
doesn't it?

Teaching History throughArgumentation

427

Students have now developed a line of argument for their first supporting
reason. The second supporting reason about the Westward Movement
will clearly need more factual information in order to be carried through
opposing and rebuttal claims. Students can either now search their notes
and reading assignment for more facts, or they can follow Mill's advice
to "imagine" opposition to reason II. They elect to imagine, and enter the
opposing and rebuttal claims for reason II in columns IV and V on the
chart. Aware of their need for more factual information, students now
begin asking for it.
A STUDENT: In reason I we make claims about Lincoln and Northern
leadership and whether they rejected or accepted compromise on abolitionism, andprobablyon otherthings, too. I wonderwhatLincoln thought
about abolitionists.
A STUDENT:Like JohnBrown, for instance.
A STUDENT:We can'tjust ask "whatdid Lincoln think?"We need to ask
an inferentialquestionthat will ask for a fact.
A STUDENT (consulting reading assignment):It says here that Brown
was hanged in 1859. I wonder....
A STUDENT: Yes, what did Lincoln say aboutBrown's hanging?That's
not in the reading,is it? We could ask what Lincoln said.
A STUDENT: Maybe he wrote a letter about it. I guess everyone was
talking aboutJohn Brown's hanging.
A STUDENT: So we wouldn't have to read all his letters, only those he
wrote when Brown was hanged.When was that,in 1859?
A STUDENT (consulting text book): It says here he was hanged in
December, 1859. We could just look at letters Lincoln wrote about that
time.
A STUDENT: So we have an inferentialquestionfor reason I: "Whatdid
Lincoln say in December, 1859, aboutJohn Brown's hanging?"
The recorder enters this question in column VI. INFERENTIAL QUESTIONS. The class period is nearly over. The students copy chart entries into
notebooks. The teacher may wish to give a critique of specific entries on the
blackboard. For the next class meeting the teacher may plan to divide the
class into groups of four or five to construct separate charts on one or more
hypotheses at several blackboards simultaneously. The bell rings.

428

Ray W. Karras

Rationale: Structure of the Argument


The Civil War chartingwas made possible only because the students
had already masteredcertain specific learnings about the structureand
termsof argument.Since the beginningof the school year, monthsbefore
the observer saw them, the class had been practicingchartingand other
exercises designed to make those learningsclear. We shall see first what
the studentshad been learningaboutthe structureof argument.
Argumentsneverend.Theeight-stepstructureof thechartinvitesstudents
to attemptmorethanthey can completein one or two class sessions,so that
they leave the class withthe argumentunfinished.We have seen thatreason
II seemed very uncertainto the students,andthatthroughoutthe argument
they needed many more than the eight facts listed. Classroomcharting
servesto getanargumentstartedandcarriedasfarastimepermits.Completing
the work are ongoinghomeworkandclass learningassignments.Working
alone, each studentcan add facts, revise claims,correct,and reflecton the
work begun in the classroom.During the chartinglesson described,the
teacherspecificallyassignedworkon hypothesessuggestedbutnotexplored
atthetime.Chartingathomeis to argumentas takingnotesis to conventional
homework.The perennialstudentquestion"how do you want me to take
notes on the reading?"is thus answeredwith a specific behavioralinstruction:"chartthe reading."
In a larger sense, the chartingis never complete and the argumentis
never finished. Except for the listed facts, every statementin the chartis
provisional.Thus, workingalone, no two studentswill make exactly the
same claims or use exactly the same facts; each studentcreateshis or her
own historical argument.For example, an essay question asking "Hypothesis: the main cause of the Civil War was the conflict over abolitionism. Do you agree?"will produceas many differentpapersas there
are students.
Chartingprovidesbuilt-inoutlinesfor essay writing.The CivilWarchart
claims a hypothesisandtwo mainreasonsfor believingit, each spelledout
throughall elementsof the chart.I shallreturnto this outliningfeaturelater
in moredetail,but it can be seen now thatoutlinesfor an argumentarevery
differentfromconventional"topic"or "subject"outlines.
Analyzing evidence. Explicitly stating how facts become evidence to
supportclaims is not cued in the chart.This is to be done in classroom
participationand in essay writing.Thus, the rebuttalclaim that "Lincoln
rejectedcompromise"is basedon fact 8 aboutthe CrittendenCompromise.
Analysis might say that Lincoln accepted no extension of slavery in the
West, even though secession was alreadyunderway at the time - which
in turnrequiresmore evidence.

Teaching History throughArgumentation

429

Startingthe charting.The exerciseshouldstartwith the cue most appropriateto the natureof the materialto be studiedandto the students'situation.
The Civil War lesson began in the FACTS column and then worked to
generalizationsof claimsandhypothesis,butthis was not the only approach
available.The teachermighthave insteadexpecteda well-preparedclass to
have alreadyattainedsome graspof the factsin the relativelyself-contained
chronologyof eventsbetween1820 and 1861.Inthiscase, the students'first
problemwouldbe less to identifyfactsthanto say whatthe readingwas all
about- in other words, to conceptualizeit. Startingin the CONCEI'S
columnmighthave immediatelyproducedany numberof conceptualslices
throughthe material,such as abolitionism,causationof the War,the states'
rightsconflict,the qualityof NorthernandSouthernleadership,andregional
economicconflict.The argumentcouldthenhavemovedto the left andright
deductivelyandinductivelyacrossthe chart.
Or supposethatthe readingdeals with a less sharplydefined historical
episode: an account,say, of slavery over severalcenturiesembracingthe
African slave trade and slavery in the New World. The student reader
may find such a vast panoramaof history to be a difficult array of
unrelatedfacts. Startingwhere the students are, the teacher might best
start with facts before gatheringthem into conceptual areas. The grand
sweep of the history of slavery might thus be broken down into more
manageable concepts like racism, the economics of slavery, or West
Africans' first contact with Europeans.
A still different point of entry may serve subjects that are obviously
controversial.For example, after reading about the Civil Rights movement in the United States between 1965 and the present,studentsmight
immediatelymake such claims as "affirmativeactionhas been successful
(or unsuccessful)"or "thewomen's movementhas succeeded (or failed)
in its main goals since 1965." A nationalelection might instantlyevoke
claims like "I think George Bush was a successful (or unsuccessful)
president."In such cases the teachermight best follow the students'lead
and startthe chartingin the HYPOTHESIScolumn.
Levels of thinkingskills. Whereverthe chartingbegins, various levels
of thinking skills are engaged as the argumentdeepens throughoutthe
structure.At the lowest level is the recall of factual information.At the
highest level is the evaluation of controversialhistorical hypotheses.
Between these levels arethe synthesisof facts into conceptualareas,then
into the informallogic of conflicting claims with their attendantanalysis
of evidence to show its relevanceto the claims. Finally is the making of
inferences at the open end of the structure.
Probably students -

and all of us -

"do" these kinds of thinking in

everydaylife as well as in historycourses.The structureof argumentcan

Ray W. Karras

430

enablestudentsto expressthisthinkingwithprecision.Recordedin writing,


the structurecues studentsto look at what they have said, to consider
carefullywhattheymightsaynext,andto engagedeliberatelytheappropriate
level of thinkingskill.An interestingconsequenceis thattheoften-proclaimed
teachingmissionto teachstudentshow to thinkis notthemainmissionof the
teacherof historicalargument.The missionof the teacherof argumentis to
show studentshow to express with increasingprecisionwhat they think
aboutthe historythe teacherwantsthemto know.
Rationale: Six Terms of Argument
We cannot assume that studentsknow what terms like "facts,""hypothesis," and "inference"mean, even though they are often used in
many classrooms. In historical argumentation,such terms carry special
meanings and have special uses that teachers and students must share.
What, exactly, do we want students to do when we ask them to state
facts?To ask historicalquestions?To claim reasons?To makeinferences?
Exactly what do we want studentsto say and do when we ask them to
argue?
Though these questions seem philosophical,and thoughhistory is not
philosophy, these kinds of questions often underlie many student
puzzlements:"I'm not sure what you mean";"Whatis this all about?";
"Whydo you say that?";"Isthis true?";and sometimes,the plain "Idon't
understand."This is not to suggest that teachers should start history
courses with theoretical lectures on epistemology and historiography.
Studentstypically resist raw theoryuntil they need it; but at that crucial
moment of need, they ask for-they demand-theory in orderto understand what they are doing. The theoreticalunderpinningsof historical
argumentation(andperhapsof any teachingapproach)can and shouldbe
made explicit as and when students need and can apply them to the
materialsthey study.
1. Factual statements. Factual statements describe what has been
physically observed in historicalaccounts.They include descriptionsof
actions, quotationsfrom primaryand secondarysources, and statistical
reports. Accurate descriptions of artifacts, paintings, photographsand
films provide factual statements.Asking studentsto write lists of everything they see in a picturecan be a valuable exercise in making factual
statements.Several consequences, some of which may be unexpected,
flow from this definition.
A factual statement may be either true or false. It is a true factual
statement that AbrahamLincoln gave the GettysburgAddress on 19
November 1863 in which he said thatwe should"herehighly resolve that

Teaching HistorythroughArgumentation

431

these dead shall not have died in vain." It is a false factual statementto
say thatWilliam Sewarddeliveredthe GettysburgAddress.However it is
neithertruenor false for a historianto say thatthe deaddid not die in vain
at Gettysburg;this is an historical claim, not a factual statement.This
distinction must hold even though we often speak of "trueideas" and
"trueopinions" in everyday discourse. In historical argument,truth or
falsity are exclusively attributesof factual statements.
If these constraintsseem more or less obvious, ask studentsto sift the
factual from otherkinds of statementson almost any page of any history
text book. A variety of responses is likely, and they reveal the very
uncertaingraspmany studentshave on the natureof historicalfactuality.5
Almost everythingthey readmay seem to be factualstatementsto students
accustomed to rote memorizationof narrativeaccounts. The assiduous
may try to commit it all to memory, painting entire pages with Magic
Markers.I have often asked beginning studentshow they chose what to
highlight and what not to. Typical answersinclude "I've got to know the
facts for the test, don't I?"and the despairing"It's in the book, isn't it?"
These studentsare merely obeying directionsto be "responsible"for
the "important"and significant"facts, andthey are perhapsdrivenby the
prospect of true-false, short-answerand standardmultiple-choicetests.6
Historicalfacts are treateddifferentlyin historicalargumentation.Starting with the recognition that not everything in books is either true or
factual, the student learns to use care in making entries in the FACT
column. "Important"or "significant"facts in argumentare only those
that provide evidence for or against the student's own claims. All other
facts are irrelevantto the argumentat hand. Yet this does not mean that
rejectedfacts are not learned;they must be identifiedand learnedbefore
the studentcan decide to reject them. Furthermore,facts rejectedin one
argumentmay be highly significantand importantin anotherargument.
Students' vested interests in defending their own controversialclaims
give them a need to know, and thus to remember,facts. Because they are
not consciously engaged in rote recall, I have found that some students
may not quite realize that they are indeed, after all, learning facts.
Students anticipating national standardizedachievement tests, which
ordinarilyrequire little more than rote recall, have sometimes told me
that they fear the outcome because "You know, we really don't lear the
facts in this course." More often than not, these students have been
pleasantlysurprisedat their scores on these tests.
Caveats.The truthor falsity of factualstatementsas set forthhere may
troublethe professionalhistorianwhen he or she leaves the study for the
classroom. As a researcher,the historianis necessarily concerned with
the verifiabilityof historicalfacts, and may even be skeptical about the

432

Ray W. Karras

very informationhe or she assigns studentsto read. Nevertheless, students have neitherthe time nor the opportunityto follow the researcher
very far into original research when they prepareterm papers, write
classroom essays, or take other tests. The result may go against the
historian's grain:studentsmust be asked to accept as true the facts they
find, unless, of course, the teachercorrectsthem.Still, thereis always the
possibility thata brightnovice mightunearthfacts heretoforeoverlooked
or be able to correctfacts alreadygiven. Unlikely as this may be, it has the
best chance of happeningto the studentwith a need to know generatedby
historicalargumentation.
Anotherproblemmay have alreadystrucksome readersof this paper.
The epistemology of factualityoffered here is franklypositivist, a philosophical position now questionedby some scholars. Yet anti- and nonpositivist historianscan still find historicalargumentationa useful pedagogy if they are careful to make clear the implicationsand functions of
whateverhistoriographicalstancethey take.
2. Concepts. In our classroom scenario studentsused concepts as a
bridge between facts and claims. The concepts "abolitionism" and
"compromise"classified facts, and they were also the substanceof the
claim "compromisefailed due to the conflict over abolitionism."To do
this work studentshad learnedseveral things aboutconcepts.
Very broadconceptscan classify very few facts, but narrowerconcepts
can classify manymorefacts.ThatAbrahamLincolnwrotethe Emancipation Proclamationand thathe deliveredthe GettysburgAddressmight be
or perhaps"Lincolnness."
gatheredunderthe giantconcept"politicalness,"
Narrowerand moreproductiveconceptsariseas the list of facts lengthens
and deepens.A moredetailedexaminationof events betweenthe EmancipationProclamationof January,1863, and the GettysburgAddresseleven
monthslater,includingthedocumentsthemselves,militaryevents,activities
of Northernand Confederateleadersand journalists,might bring to the
surfacesuch conceptsas Lincoln'spersonalleadership,the effect of abolitionistsentimenton the militaryconductof theWar,andthe aimsof the War
itself. From these might emerge fruitfulhistoricalquestionslike, to what
extent did Lincoln's war aims change between Januaryand November
1863?To whatextentdid the Northerncause shiftfroma simpleimperative
to save the Unionto a morecomplexmissionregardingslavery?In this way
explicitly articulatedconceptscan help studentsmap the groundbetween
any set of facts and full-fledgedarguments.Conceptualizationis at the
crossroadsof this terrain.
The CONCEPTcolumn also cued studentsto make sharpdistinctions
among the elements of the argument.In our classroomscenarioa student
offered "the Civil War" as an entry for the FACT column, perhaps

Teaching History throughArgumentation

433

because text books andeverydayusage seem to treat"theCivil War"as a


fact. Yet the students rejectedthis usage in their charting.No one ever
saw or otherwise physically observed the Civil War or any other war.
"TheCivil War"is actuallya conceptthatclassifies a myriadof observed
factual events that occurredbetween 1861 and 1865. The distinction is
not overice. These very same events have also been classified by some
as "The War for Southern Independence"and "the War Between the
States." Even the concept "war"itself is problematical,for Lincoln did
not ask for a declarationof war and Congress did not make one. How,
then,shouldthe eventsbetween1861and 1865be characterized?
Explicitly
stated concepts can expose interestinghistorical and historiographical
questions that might otherwisego unnoticed.
Findingwords to express concepts clearly is easier thanit might seem.
In the CONCEPTcolumn of the Civil War chart we find the invented
word "Westness," and a moment ago we saw "Lincolnness" and
"politicalness."The "-ness"suffix can be attachedto any English wordto
insurethatit is understoodas a concept;thatby "Westness"we mean not
just a place on the map, and that by "Lincolnness"we mean to classify
many facts about that factual man. I have found that students readily
understandand use this "-ness"strategy,thoughof course in writingand
otherformalassignmentsthey mustfind real wordsfor whatthey want to
say. We saw this process begin in the classroom chartingas the concept
"Westness" was already being tentatively refined into "Westward
Movement."
3. Controversialclaims. A claim is controversialif opposing as well
as supporting facts are available to it. Like some other seemingly
straightforwarddefinitions,this one has its consequencesandunderlying
assumptions.
Theproblem of multiplecausation. Multiplecauses undoubtedlygovern historicalevents. But multiplecausationdoes not mean equal causation. The arguer cannot answer the question "Why did the Civil War
happen?"by saying "Therewere many reasons,and I will discuss them."
This often happens when studentsare asked to "discuss"historicalepisodes. The resultis usually a reportof all the facts the studentcan muster
under any number of concepts, one in which the student writes one
paragraphon political causes, anotheron social causes, anotheron economic causes, and so on. Therecan be no argumentin this treatmentbecause thereis no controversy.The whole "discussion"stays at a relatively
low-order thinking skill level and does not rise to evaluate the relative
force of competing causes. The historical argueris obliged to read the
questionaboutthe cause of the Civil Waras "Whatwas the main cause of
the Civil War?"

434

Ray W. Karras

Claimsare provisional.Thereare nearlyan infinitenumberof reasons


for believing any hypothesis,and it is not possible to claim and evaluate
all of them in any one argumentshortof writinga very long book. It is, of
course, logically necessary to claim at least two reasons for believing a
hypothesis;otherwisethe single subordinatereasonbecomes the same as
the hypothesis it is intended to support. In historical argument, the
studentargueris really saying that "amongthe possible reasons I offer,
the one stated in my hypothesis is the main reason."In a characterizing
argument(see "Historicalquestions"below), the argueris saying that
"among the possible characterizationsI offer, the one stated in my
hypothesis is the main characterization."In the Civil War chartstudents
claimed that neitherthe failureof compromisenor the WestwardMovement mainly causedthe War,but thatabolitionismactingon these factors
caused them both.
These claims are provisionalnot only with relationto claims outside
the scope of the argument,but also to claims and evidence within it. In
preparingthe argument,wordings of reason claims must be continually
adjustedto meetthe challengesof evidenceandof counter-claimreasoning;
and this in turnrequiresthe constantmodificationor even reversalof the
overall hypothesis.
Levels of claims. Controversialclaims work at two main levels. The
claim of a controversial hypothesis (which I shall discuss separately
below) covers the entireargumentandanswersa mainhistoricalquestion.
The second mainlevel claims logically independentreasonsfor believing
and opposing the hypothesis.
These claims of reasons are the body of the argument.To them are
attachedall factualevidence;againstthem areopposedcompetingclaims
andevidence, which arein turndefeatedby rebuttalclaims andevidence;
and from all these arise inferentialquestions.
In this hierarchy of claims the hypothesis itself is neither directly
evidenced or attacked;only the morevulnerableandnarrowersub-claims
face direct counterargument.By focusing attentionon one reason-claim
at a time this strategydrives the arguerever more deeply into the facts
neededto supportandoppose it. The logic of the strategyis this: if we can
be broughtto believe the reasons for a hypothesis, then we can, at least
provisionally,be broughtto believe the hypothesisitself. The Civil War
chartingproposed:(I.) Compromisefailed due to conflict over abolitionism; and (II.) Conflict over abolitionism in the Westward movement
caused the Civil War; therefore, we can tentatively believe that the
conflict over abolitionism was the main cause of the Civil War, for
abolitionismwas the agent of change in both the compromiseand Western factors.

Teaching History throughArgumentation

435

Only one level of claimed reasons supported the hypothesis in the


Civil War chart. However, the hierarchy of claims can be deepened to any
level that reasoning and evidence may take it. Reasons can be claimed for
reasons. Once again, only the lowest sub-claims are directly evidenced
and argued. For example:
CLAIM of hypothesis
I.

CLAIM of a main reason for believing the hypothesis


A. CLAIMof a reasonfor believing reasonI (with evidence, opposing and rebuttalclaims and inferentialquestions)
B. CLAIM of anotherreasonfor reasonI
1. CLAIMof a reason for believing IB (with evidence, opposing and rebuttalclaims and inferentialquestions)
2. CLAIM of anotherreason for believing IB (with evidence,
opposing and rebuttalclaims and inferentialquestions)

II. CLAIM of anothermain reasonfor believing the hypothesis.


...and so on....
Each deeper level of claims expands exponentially the size and complexity of the argument. Each lowest-level claim carries its own apparatus
of supporting evidence, opposing claim (with its evidence), rebuttal
claim (with its evidence), and inferential questions testing this claim. In
classroom charting and essay writing there is seldom time to go deeper
than the hypothesis and main reason claim levels. However, term papers
and other out-of-class projects can articulate arguments through deeper
levels.
The logic of competing claims. Informal logic governs the lines of
argument running through supporting, opposing and rebuttal claims. The
basic criterion is that we should not be able simultaneously to believe any
claim and its opposition. Not all parts of a claim need be opposed or
rebutted; attacking one part is enough. Thus, in the Civil War chart,
reason I claiming that "Compromise failed due to conflict over abolitionism" was met with the opposing claim "I. Compromise succeeded
because Northern leadership accepted it to save [the] Union." This claim
attacks only the "compromise failed" part of the supporting claim, with
no direct reference to abolitionism. In like manner, the rebuttal claim that
says "I. Lincoln was uncompromising," does not dispute whether or not
this was to save the Union. Nor need it do so: defeating any part of a claim
defeats all of it.

436

Ray W. Karras

Rebuttalclaims defend supportingclaims by directattackon opposing


claims, and not through furtherstrengtheningof the supportingclaim
itself. Logically, this is:
SUPPORTINGCLAIM
OPPOSINGCLAIM
NOT OPPOSINGCLAIM

-in which each kind of claim requiresnew anddeeperfactualevidence.


Managing rebuttalsis perhapsthe hardestpart of argumentation.To be
resisted is the temptationto use rebuttalsto restorethe originalclaim by
simply reassertingit with addedevidence; i.e.:
SUPPORTINGCLAIM
OPPOSINGCLAIM
SUPPORTINGCLAIMREASSERTED
WITHNEW EVIDENCE

This is a losing argumentbecause the unansweredopposing claim is left


in the clear.
4. Hypotheses.Thehypothesis,as we haveseen,is the mostgeneralclaim
in the argument.It controlsandis controlledby thelogic andevidentialforce
of all its sub-claims.But whatof the term"hypothesis"itself?
"Hypothesis"suggests the necessarytentativenessthat possible alternative termsdo not. "Thesis"suggests the exhaustivescope and depthof
a doctoral dissertation,which are clearly impossible in high school and
college undergraduatework. The word "conclusion"is also problematical. History teachers asking students to "drawconclusions" might rememberthatthey receive studentsfromothercourseswhere"conclusions"
have varying meanings. In literaturecourses students learn that the
conclusion to Hamlet is the death of the Prince. In mathematics,it is
conclusively truethattwo plus two arefour. Studentsshouldnot be led to
believe that historicalargumentscan yield such certainties.
"Theory"is anothersuspectterm.The historyteacherriskspedagogical
confusionin following the dictionarydefinitionof "theory"as a synonym
for "hypothesis."Again, studentscome to historyclass fromelsewhere.In
science courses,Newton,Einstein,Darwin,and manyothersare presented
as formulatingtheoreticallaws that govern all of time past, presentand
future,and thatcan be testedby repeatedexperimentation.
Many, perhaps
most,historyteachersresistthebeliefthathistorybehaveslikethephenomena
of cosmology or biologicalevolution.Of course,if the teacherdoes indeed
wish to convey a historiographyof theories,then this must be made very
clearin orderfor argumentto be effective.

Teaching History throughArgumentation

437

5. Historical questions. These are of two kinds in the model presented


here. One kind asks for causationof events, the otherfor theircharacterization. The charting class obviously asked a question of causation.
However, "Did Lincoln intentionallyadvance the cause of abolitionism
in the EmancipationProclamation?"is a characterizingquestion asking
studentsto pin a controversiallabel on Lincoln's intentions.Both kinds
of questions are well suited to historicalargumentation.
A special problemarises with questionsof historicalfact. The answer
to the question "Who killed John F. Kennedy?"will be a controversial
factualclaim requiringoriginalresearchwhich, as we have seen, students
can seldom do. The best strategyhere is to recast such a question of fact
into a question of characterizationsuch as, "Which claim about the
assassin is most convincing?"This invites the studentto claim a hypothesis evaluatingthe argumentsof, say, the WarrenCommission, of Mark
Lane, and perhapsof Oliver Stone in his film JFK.
Value questionspose yet anotherproblem."By what rightdid Columbus take over America?"and "Haveminoritiesin the United States been
unjustlyoppressed?"are such questions.To be effectively argued,these
questions often use historical materials, but they always also require
some systematic knowledge of ethical concepts; otherwise, they tend to
display mainly the personalfeelings of the arguers.Few novice students
have the formalphilosophicaltrainingneeded to argue value questions.
6. Inferential questions. At some point studentsmust stop preparation
and deliver arguments.They must do so even though they have become
awarethatthey do not know and cannotknow all the facts needed to test
their claims. But what facts would be needed to do this? An act of
inference is needed, a movementfrom the known to the unknown.In the
classroom scenario we observed studentsasking an inferentialquestion
when they sought new facts aboutJohnBrown's hanginglate in the year
1859. Inferentialquestions not only underlinethe provisional natureof
theirclaims, but they can show studentsthe way to targetfurtherresearch
efficiently. Should answersto inferentialquestionsbe found, they will be
enteredin the FACTS column along with otherknown facts.

Teaching history throughargumentationdiffers in several ways from


more conventional approaches.It entails special teaching methods, a
formal structure,and its own epistemology in its terms of argument.
Teachinghistorythroughargumentationis not andcannotbe an occasional
classroom activity in a history course. Learninghistory through argumentationis the course itself.

438

Ray W. Karras

Notes
1.
John StuartMill, "OnLiberty,"in Saxe CumminsandRobertN. Linscott,eds.,
Mind and the State: The Political Philosophers (New York: RandomHouse, 1947), p.
172.
2.
D. N. Perkins,"Post-PrimaryEducationHas LittleImpacton InformalReasoning," Journal of EducationalPsychology, 77 (October1985), pp. 569, 562-571.
3.
Mill, p. 181.
4.
A technicalnote: Allowances must be made for the limitationsof blackboards.
At the end of class studentsneed a few minutes to copy the display. Furthermore,the
display may have to be preservedfor futureclass meetings. Recent technology can help.
An electronic blackboard-copieris available that makes any numberof copies of the
display in minutes. In another technology, students could ideally share displays on
networked computers, and the results could almost instantly appear on printouts for
everyone.
Cf. Ray W. Karras,"CopingwithMr.Gradgrind,"
OAHMagazineofHistory,Fall
5.
1992, pp. 9-12.
Cf. Ray W. Karras,"Let'sImproveMultiple-ChoiceTests," OAHMagazine of
6.
History 6 (Summer, 1991), pp. 8-9, 43; Karras,"A Multi-DimensionalMultiple-Choice
TestingSystem,"AmericanHistoricalAssociationPerspectives2 (February,1978);Karras,
"WritingMultiple-ChoiceQuestions:The Problemand a ProposedSolution,"The History Teacher 11 (February,1978), pp. 211-218.