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
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