issue arises for Frederick Jackson Turner’s argument before the American Historical Association in 1893 that the frontier was closed. Even the idea that a primary source is contemporary with whatever it addresses encounters difficulties with something like Bede’s History. In the face of these difficulties, some students develop their own categories; as one sixth grader said:25 “I can tell this is a primary source because it doesn’t make any sense.”
A crucial step for students in shedding everyday preconceptions and making real headway in understanding historical evidence is therefore to replace the idea that we are dependent on reports with the idea that we can construct a picture of the past by inference. Historians are not simply forced to choose between two reports, but can work out their own picture, which may differ from both.26 With this understanding goes the recognition that we can know things about the past that no witness has reported. What matters is the question we are asking. Gibbon and Turner were not reporting anything about the beliefs and values of their time, but historians may use what they said (and other evidence) to produce an account of those beliefs and values. Jim, in Box 2-7, shows signs of thinking like this when he says you have to remember what you want to find out from any piece of evidence you are using.
Once students understand two parallel distinctions—between relic and record and between intentional and unintentional evidence—they can escape from the trap set by some of their everyday preconceptions. A record is a source that intends to tell us, or someone else, something about some event, process, or state of affairs. Relics are sources that were not intended to tell us what happened, or sources that are used by an investigator to answer a particular question in ways that do not depend on what they intend to report but on what they were part of. Coins, tools, and acts of Congress do not report the past to us, and so cannot be more or less “reliable.” They are the traces of human activities, and we can use them to draw inferences about the past. Even deliberate reports of the past can be used to answer questions in this way when we do not ask about what they meant to report, but what they show about the activity of which they were a part.
One final point is worth making in connection with students’ ideas about evidence. Common sense dictates that claims must be backed up, so students understandably look for evidence that does this: the more, the better. This is perfectly acceptable, but students also need to understand that however much evidence they gather in support of a claim, one piece can be enough to refute it. Learning to try to disconfirm claims may be difficult initially, but disconfirmation can be a highly efficient strategy in the face of a multiplicity of claims. We say “can be” because in history matters are seldom clear-cut, so the single piece of knockout evidence may be difficult to find, and there is always a danger that students will try to short-circuit difficult problems demanding judgment simply by trying to discredit whatever is put before them.