A Guide to Critical Reading:
Evaluate the REASONING

 E Pluribus Unum

 

 

IN PROGRESS

Be on the Lookout for Unsupported Assumptions and Explanations

It is certainly appropriate for a writer to offer his/her own interpretation of a topic, but it is important for the reader to make sure that interpretation has been explained and supported rather than merely asserted as true. For example, if you encounter a paragraph that begins "because he could not emancipate his slaves," for example, make sure that the author has already provided an explanation and proof of the fact that there were reasons that this person "could not" free slaves. Are you reading an assertion or a well-supported argument?


Beware of Simple Solutions to Complex Questions

The reader needs to be particularly alert when considering the author's conclusions. Is there a persuasive explanation of why you should share the author's perspective? A writer can lead you to an unfair conclusion by presenting evidence only on one side of an issue; if you encounter an essay that makes simple work of a complicated issue, look out! Another way an author can lead you to accept a one-sided interpretation is by including evidence on both sides of the issue but writing a conclusion that simply asserts the superiority of one side over the other. For example, one web essay on Washington includes information on both his slaveholding practices and his statements in favor of eventual abolition, and then arrives at a simple conclusion by saying "Most importantly, Washington freed his slaves in his will." Is that author's interpretation of Washington necessarily incorrect? No. But if someone is going to argue that one factor is more important than all others, then s/he should explain why one "weighs" more than the other.


Beware of Accepting Explanations Without Considering Alternatives

 


Be Aware of the Assumptions and Biases You Bring to Your Reading

It's not enough to stay alert to the possible weaknesses in the texts you read -- you also need to keep an eye on your own prejudices and faulty reasoning.  "But I'm NOT prejudiced!" you probably say, and that may be true in the normal sense of the term.  Yet, because you grew up in a particular time and place, you will probably have a natural inclination to see the way things are seen and done today as the norm.  But using modern standards may lead you to misinterpret what people in other places and/or other times had said or done.  For example, since the 1960's many Americans have become increasingly cynical about politicans and often doubt the sincerity of statements made by those who hold office.  Thus, when we read the statements of 18th century writers, we may bring an inappropriate kind of cynicism.  Were all 18th century writers and orators sincere?  Absolutely not, but we need a different kind of lens with which to view their work.  A knowledge of history and work with primary documents  can provide that lens.


Index to Section on Expanding the American Revolution: If "All Men Are Created Equal," What About African-Americans?

Expanding the Revolution: Race, Slavery and the American Revolution

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: A Guide to Critical Reading

Investigating the History of Race and Slavery in Early America: What the Founders Said, Wrote About and Did About Race and Slavery

Revolutionizing the Revolution in the 19th Century: Using the Founders and Founding Documents to Fight Slavery

Expanding the Revolution: An Annotated Guide on Topics and Resources on Africans, African-Americans, Native-Americans, and Women in the Era of the Revolution

 

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The E Pluribus Unum Project is funded by a grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It is co-directed by Dr. John McClymer, Professor of History, Assumption College; Dr Lucia Knoles, Professor of English, Assumption College; and Dr. Arnold Pulda, Director of Gifted and Talented student programs for the public schools in Worcester, MA. Visitors are encouraged to send inquiries or suggestions.