August 2006. Edited February 2007. Substantially revised August 2011. Minor edits January 2013, April 2013.
For a one-page list of these techniques, see Critical Reading Moves.
In his book, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, Sam Wineburg describes the start of a history of religion course with Professor Jacob Neusner.
“What is the text doing,” [Neusner] asked about Genesis 1, as a hundred students or so collectively quaked in their seats. One after another, baffled freshmen summarized the text, only to have Neusner strike his fist on the podium: “Doing, not saying. What is the text doing?”
That distinction, between saying and doing, lies at the heart of critical reading. To read critically means to extract information actively from a text, rather than taking the author’s own statements as the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In some cases, it can mean doubting the factual accuracy of the author’s statements. More commonly, it means asking what we can learn from the way the author selected and arranged facts the way she did
Critical reading is not the only way to use a source; historians mostly read primary sources for the facts they contain, and they assemble stories from the patterns they find. But they must always be alert to the opportunity to extract from a source more information than its creator wished to convey.
I. Challenge A Source’s Credibility
The most critical of critical readings will show that a source says something that is factually inaccurate or logically incoherent. Historians sometimes do so to hold historical figures to account for their misdeeds. In other cases, the goal is not to condemn the creator of the source, but to use the inaccuracies or fallacies to understand better that person’s view of the world.
A. The source is lying
1. Internal evidence shows that a source is lying.
Whitney Strub, Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right, 27:
Kefauver’s report downplayed juvenile delinquency as a general concept and instead dwelled specifically on sex crimes. A “very large percentage” of the pornography market “reaches the hands of juveniles,” the report claimed, and “the impulses which spur people to sex crimes unquestionably are intensified by reading and seeing pornographic materials.” Once again, as with the comics, an absolute lack of evidence confronted Kefauver in his efforts to establish the pornography—sex crime connection. This time, instead of grappling with this obstacle in the text of his report, he banished it to the margins: a brief note buried in the report’s bibliography—presented in smaller print type than the report’s body—observed, “There are no studies of the relationship of pornographic literature to sexual offense.”
What is the source saying? That pornography spurs sex crimes, and that there is no evidence to show that pornography spurs sex crimes.
What is the source doing? Claiming that pornography spurs sex crimes despite a lack of evidence.
2. External evidence shows that a source is lying.
Richard White, Railroaded: The Transcontinentals and the Making of Modern America, 86.
Everyone agreed to lie. The utilitarian fictions of capitalism are apparent when the annual report for the Central Pacific Railroad for 1873 and the report of the railroad’s bankers, Fisk and Hatch, to Central Pacific bondholders in January of 1874 are compared with the less imaginative letters exchanged among the Associates. On January 1, 1874, Fisk and Hatch published numbers that assured investors that the Central Pacific had a large surplus from earnings, more than enough to cover its bonded debt (it didn’t mention other debts) . . . The Central Pacific’s annual report for 1873 remained as reassuring as ever: ‘the financial and business prospects of your Company were never brighter.” In November of 1873, however, Hopkins wrote Huntington that it was “impossible to save out of it (revenues) enough to [pay] the C.P. January interest.
What is the source (the report to bondholders and the annual report) saying? The Central Pacific has enough money to pay the interest on its debt.
What is the source doing? Lying to investors.
B. The source’s logic contradicts itself, or at least reveals a tension
Eric Foner, The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery, 238
The message to Congress revealed Lincoln’s thinking at a crucial moment of transition. He clung to a proposal he had been promoting for a year with no success, yet pleaded with Americans to abandon the ‘dogmas’ of the past. He again endorsed colonization, yet referred to prospective emigrants as ‘free Americans of African descent’ rather than alien members of some other nationality, and argued that the nation had nothing to fear if former slaves remained in the United States.
What is the source saying? That Americans should promote colonization yet consider former slaves to be “free Americans of African descent” who could remain in the United States.
What is the source doing? Showing that Lincoln was on the way to abandoning his commitment to colonization.
Michael Sherry, The Rise of American Air Power, 55
The planners’ vacillation about whether the final objective would be the morale of the population or its war-making capacity was a critical weakness of their doctrine. A 1926 text asserted that “complete destruction of vital parts of the enemy’s sources of supply” would lead “eventually . . . to the collapse of the whole system.” In the masterful evasion of Muir Fairchild, an important tactical school instructor who wrote in the wake of Poland’s defeat in 1939:
The industrial mechanisms which provide the means of war to the armed forces, and those that provide the means of sustaining a normal life to the civil population, are not separate, disconnected entities. They are joined at many vital points. If not electrical power, then the destruction of some other common element, will render them both inoperative at a single blow. The nationwide reaction to the stunning discovery that the sources of the country’s power to resist and sustain itself, are being relentlessly destroyed, can hardly fail to be decisive.
This was a disturbing mixture of confidence about success and evasion about how to achieve it. Admittedly, Fairchild finally considered the enemy’s will as the ultimate objective, and distinctions between will and the capacity to wage war can be arbitrary. Yet it made a great difference, in strategy and in the lives of the attackers and defenders, which objective was singled out. For Fairchild, apparently, one objective was as good as another. As was often the case in strategic thinking, belief in success encouraged imprecision about how to achieve it.
What is the source saying? Arguing that strategic bombing could win wars.
What is the source doing? Showing that strategists weren’t sure if the goal of strategic bombing was to cripple an army or demoralize a people.
II. Explain the Nuances of Argument
Even sources that are factually accurate and logically sound are worthy of exploration, for every person must make choices when presenting information or argument. Look for the following, and use them to understand the source’s creator’s views.
A. The source makes surprising choices about what facts to present, how to present them, and what to emphasize.
William Cronon, Changes in the Land, 21.
Seeing landscapes in terms of commodities meant something else as well: it treated members of an ecosystem as isolated and extractable units. Explorers describing a new countryside with an eye to its mercantile possibilities all too easily fell into this way of looking at things, so that their descriptions often degenerated into little more than lists. Martin Pring’s account of the trees of Martha’s Vineyard illustrates this tendency:
As for Trees the Country yeeldeth Sassafras a plant of sovereigne vertue for the French Poxe, and as some of late have learnedly written good against the Plague and many other Maladies; Vines, Cedars, Okes, Ashes, Beeches, Birch trees, Cherie trees bearing fruit whereof wee did eate, Hasels, Wichhasels, the best wood of all other to make Sope-ashes withal, walnut-trees, Maples, holy to make Bird lime with, and a kinde of tree bearing a fruit like a small red Peare-plum.
Little sense of ecological relationships emerges from such a list. One could not use it to describe what the forest actually looked like or how these trees interacted with one another. Instead, its purpose was to detail resources for the interest of future undertakings.
What is the source saying? Martha’s Vineyard has a lot of valuable plants.
What is the source doing? Listing plants as individual commodities, rather than trying to understand their relationship within an ecosystem.
Alan Brinkley, The Publisher: Henry Luce and His American Century, 186.
The films, like the magazines, had one cultural standard that they used consistently to interpret and explain events: the progressive outlook of the Anglo-American world, reflecting Luce’s own consistent views. Almost everything carried in The March of Time either displayed that world or made invidious comparisons with it. One example was an otherwise pointless piece about Lake Tana in Ethiopia, the source of the Blue Nile. “High in the mountains of northeast Africa,” the narration boomed over shots of the landscape, “fed in the rainy season by the drainage of a vast plateau, likes a lake seldom visited by white men but of vital importance to one great white nation.” The importance of the lake, in short, was that it irrigated cotton fields that were important to the British textile industry.
What is the source saying? Lake Tana is the source of the Blue Nile.
What is the source doing? Presenting Africa as important only to the degree it serves Europe.
John Dower, Cultures of War: Pearl Harbor, Hiroshima, 9-11, Iraq, 184.
The fatality estimate for Tokyo was exaggerated by a factor of ten or twenty, but more suggestive in retrospect is how causally such a staggering number [1 million] of projected Japanese civilian deaths could be reported, and tucked away, by this date. It did not even qualify as the lead story. Suggestive, too, is how nonchalantly even a paper at the respected level of the Times could report that one or perhaps two million “of the Emperor’s subjects” had been killed in an attack on arsenals, electric plants, engine plants, and home factories—and leave it at that.
What is the source saying? That U.S. bombers had killed up to two million people.
What is the source doing? Downplaying the importance of up to two million deaths by emphasizing instead American advances in Okinawa and the ostensible targeting of military, not civilian, facilities.
B. The source uses striking terminology, metaphors, and imagery
Marilynn S. Johnson, Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City, 37.
Unlike working-class critics who cast police as capitalist henchmen, middle-class reformers saw police as lower-class brutes allied with immigrant political machines. The term “police brutality,” which first appeared in newspaper accounts in the 1860s, reflects some of these middle-class biases. The use of the term brutality—defined as the state or condition of brutes or animals—suggested that the infliction of pain on others turned man himself into a beast. . . . In highlighting the animal-like traits of policemen—most of whom came from working-class backgrounds—elite critics drew on popular ethnic and class stereotypes of lower-class people as bestial and subhuman. These derogatory characterizations would persist into the late twentieth century, with middle-class radicals of the 1960s casting police as “pigs” and “brutes.”
What is the source saying? Policemen are like animals.
What is the source doing? Blaming police violence on the lower-class origins of officers, rather than the demands of capitalist employers.
C. The source makes concessions
Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, 382.
Longing to erase the disgrace of past defeats, Brown vowed that his troops would fight to ‘gain a name in armys worthy of our selves or the gallant nation in whose name we fight.’ Matching the British in combat became his definition of victory: ‘Let us meet our present gallant and accomplished Foe, Reg[ular] to Reg[ular],’ for only then could Americans ‘be proud of our Men and Nation.’ Brown substituted an intangible—the restoration of honor—for the tangible conquest of Canada.
What is the source saying? That Americans can win honor by fighting British regulars.
What is the source doing? Giving up on conquering Canada.
III. Put the Source in Context
By reading a source with outside events in mind, the historian can extract new meanings.
A. Contemporary context
1. The source is advancing an unstated agenda
Thomas J. Sugrue and John D. Skrentny, “The White Ethnic Strategy” in Rightward Bound: Making America Conservative in the 1970s, eds. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer, 178.
In the political climate of the civil rights and black power eras, ethnicity was necessary but not sufficient. For the category of “white ethnic” to sustain political claims, its members needed to draw analogies between their condition and that of officially recognized minorities, most notably African Americans. They would need to recover two histories–one of the group’s past triumphs, a filiopietistic ethnic past to forge a common ethnic identity to supplant the broad category of whiteness, and the other a history of group oppression, of shared suffering, that would allow them to gain political recognition on the same terms then enjoyed by blacks—as well as a widening circle of other aggrieved minorities, including Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans. As a young Barbara Mikulski wrote in a New York Times op-ed, “We called ourselves Americans. We were called ‘wop,’ ‘polack,’ and ‘hunky.’
What is the source saying? That immigrants from Central and Eastern Europe faced discrimination.
What is the source doing? Claiming that the descendants of those immigrants deserved some of the privileges being granted to African Americans, Latinos, American Indians, and Asian Americans.
2. The source is countering an argument
Barbara Young Welke, Recasting American Liberty, 240
Underlying the groundswell of legal authority approving court-sanctioned exams was a mixture of distrust of those claiming injury, an overweening confidence in the power of courts to protect against unwarranted invasions of the person, and an emphatic embrace of the superiority of expert knowledge. The Arkansas Supreme Court noted in an 1885 case,
There could be no more flagrant case of the evils resulting from such refusal [to submit to a physical exam] than the present case affords. The plaintiff was an uneducated man, incapable of estimating the consequences of his injury except by the pain and inconvenience which it caused him . . . . His claim for damages was based principally on alleged internal injuries, which could only have been understood and properly estimated by a physician.
Certainly, doctors often understood more fully than their patients the nature of injury, but the level of confidence placed in expert knowledge said more about the distrust of accidental injury victims, new attitudes toward expertise in general, and the success of doctors in raising the scientific profile of the medical profession than knowledge in fact.
B. Historical context
1. The source says something old
Manning Marable, Malcolm X: A Life of Reinvention
Though the announced topic, “The Ballot or the Bullet,” seemed incendiary, at its core the speech actually contained a far more conventional message, one that had defined the civil rights movement as far back as 1962: the importance of voting rights . . . By embracing the ballot, [Malcolm X] was implicitly rejecting violence, even if this was at times difficult to discern in the heat of rhetoric.
What is the source saying? That African Americans should seek change through politics, rather than violence.
What is the source doing? Adopting an argument that had been around for years.
2. The source says something new
Peter Bacon Hales, Atomic Spaces: Living on the Manhattan Project, 140.
The ideology of technological progress upon which the [Manhattan Engineering] District based its programs posed a rosy future in which engineers and scientists would render neutral, or reclaim to benevolent use, the toxins of atomic bomb production. This had been the assumption from the beginning. (A District report phrased it this way: the wastes “are placed in large . . . underground storage tanks which will permit appropriate action to be taken at a later date.”) But as planning turned to production and the District measured its existence in years rather than weeks or months, this mirage of “appropriate action” seemed to have receded further and further. Writing in 1946, District officials confessed that the materials “cannot be disposed of by ordinary means.”
What is the (1946) source saying? That engineers do not know how to dispose of radioactive waste.
What is the source doing? Breaking from an earlier position that waste disposal would be easy to solve.