The Source of All Knowledge 1

I recently assisted a new client in preparation for his mock exams in GCSE history for the CIE board. This is the first time I have encountered the board and was really impressed by the scope and depth of its syllabus. One of the papers is entirely source-based and asks a number of unusual questions which I think could be helpful to examine as part of a wider approach to attacking source-based questions. For a closer look at the sort of questions to expect, take a look at some past papers here:

This week I’d like to examine written sources. When attempting source-based questions many students will immediately try to describe it in terms of usefulness/trustworthiness. Whilst this is a fair approach, they must make sure to be specific when analysing a source. For example, I always recommend that students examine the description which comes with a source, before reading the source itself, as this can be an easy to score a couple of marks. Take the example below:

“Each country’s leader had a thick file of clippings from the Czech press. With varying intensity, they attacked us for ‘losing control’ over our situation and permitting a diversity of opinion that, in their view, bordered on ‘counter-revolution’. Mixed in were the usual references to ‘outside threats to the socialist camp’. I noted that the harshest criticism came from Gomulka, with Ulbricht only a little less arrogant. Brezhnev put on the face of the worried parent. On the whole I felt they had accepted what I said with understanding and respected our sovereignty over our own internal development. “

From Dubcek’s autobiography entitled ‘Hope Dies Last’, published in 1993. He is describing a meeting of the Warsaw Pact in March 1968. Gomulka was the leader of Poland and Ulbricht was the leader of East Germany.

The first thing to address is who the source is by. The majority of the time it will be from a recognised historical figure, in this case Dubcek — the leader of Czechoslovakia during the Prague Spring — however sometimes sources will come from British housewives during the Blitz, Soviet soldiers on the frontline or unnamed civil servants. In this circumstance a good student would first comment on the anonymity of the source, but also suggest the likely outlook of the author given their place in society.

Having looked at this, the next thing to discuss is what kind of source it is. This will often give clues as to whether the source has been censored in anyway, either by the author, to protect themselves or for fear of a backlash against them or an independent editor. In this case it is an autobiography, so likely to be reasonably trustworthy, but also liable to some bias depending on whether the author has anything to hide. Memoirs or diaries are generally the most honest sources, since they are written without the expectation of publication. Other sources can include newspapers, pamphlets, internal government memos, radio/TV broadcasts, adverts and slogans or song lyrics. In each case it is important to analyse the likely audience: is it large and public or small and private? Does the author think they can trust their audience? Are they overtly trying to manipulate them?

Next, the student should analyse the context of the source. When was it written? In this case, it is some 25 years after the events. A common answer is that this makes it less reliable due to the passage of time and the nature of human memory. Whilst this is true, a more sophisticated approach is to ask whether the author has anything to gain by hiding the truth? In Dubcek’s case, one would suspect not, since many people view his policy of ‘Communism with a human face’ as a brave and defiant opposition to the Soviet Union. Perhaps if the source were from Stalin or Lyndon.B.Johnson’s autobiography, there may be more reason for obfuscation, but not this one.

Lastly, it is important to describe why the source was being written — in this case to recall the events of 1968 and the meeting of the Warsaw Pact. A good student will define what the pact was and why they would have been meeting at this time. Once you’ve addressed the who, what, when and why of the source, it’s worth sweeping up any other questions in the information given. In this case, it would be important to describe the allegiance of the Polish and East German leaders. With that done, you can begin to examine the main body of the source, which is something we’ll do next time…