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  • Writer's pictureDiving Bell

Where's the argument?

Writing about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, the historian Geoffrey Roberts says that On the Soviet side the pact emerged from a process of short-term crisis management in which the Soviet leadership (primarily Stalin and Molotov) responded to the initiatives and actions of others. In the essay of a strong student - that is, one who can identify argument and interpretation, Roberts' idea might be rendered something like this: Roberts views the pact as an example of 'short-term crisis management' by a reactive Soviet leadership.

There is a perceptible difference in the tone and style between historians who write about modern history and those who write about the ancient world, but it is noticeable that HSC students consistently find it easier to identify argument in those historians of modern history than they do in historians of ancient history. Even strong students occasionally fall into the habit of writing things like this (from an essay given a Band 6 in a 2019 school assessment): In addition to Amun's prophecy of Hatshepsut's birth, she claimed she was chosen by her father, Thutmose I, stated by Pamela Bradley, 'as his only legitimate successor'. Apart from the student's poor grasp of sentence construction, what is problematic is the inability to tell argument from fact in Bradley.

Certainly, the sources for ancient history are often fewer in number than they are for modern history. And certainly, the average high-school (and undergraduate) student must rely on translators and 'enculturators' to massage extremely alien sources into their worldview. And yes, perhaps those who write about ancient history do have a less trenchant, less polemical style than their modern counterparts. But all students should be able to perform a close reading of historical writing in their own language, and to locate the many ways in which argument is embedded in a historian's style.

The term 'Close reading' is now mostly associated with the English classroom. Older teachers will recognize it as no more than the old commentary exercise which all readers performed as the first method of approaching any text, by which you sieved and parsed and generally got a feel for the blue-print of the writing. Rebadged in the 1940s by American literary critics as 'close reading', it became the hallmark of the New Critics, the I.A. Richards-influenced formalists who dominated literary criticism until the 1970s. Their methods, simplified and mostly shorn of the contextual knowledge which was always intended to accompany it, still abound in one way or another in high-school English classes. Today, most Australian students hearing the term 'close reading' would immediately think of a fingertip trawl through a passage, identifying figures of speech largely divorced from a hypothesis about meaning. They're surprised to learn that it should still be the first mode of interrogation of any source, but particularly one in which argument is subtle and buried deeply in an apparently unbiased surface narrative.

But all students should be able to perform a close reading of any historical writing in their own language, and to locate the many ways in which argument is embedded in a historian's style.

Here, for example, are some aspects of writing and narrative in which argument can be vested:

  • Sequence of cause and effect

  • Choice of events to include and omit

  • Suggestions of motivation

  • Treatment of narrative time (that is, what periods are condensed or expanded in the historian's narrative)

  • Acceptance or adoption of generally-grouped sources

  • Readings of other documents which are summarized rather than being reproduced or cited

  • Inference about cultures of thought, or mentalities

  • Use of historical, narrative, or dramatic tropes, acknowledged as such or not

  • Assertions of influence and association between people, and between people and ideas

  • Elements of style such as adjectives, adverbs, modifiers, causal and concessive terms

Students, like the one whose essay is quoted above, can be given a list like this and asked to go through a relevant passage from a secondary historian, locating some or all of the elements. By the end of the passage they should have a better idea that argument exists, how it's produced, and what it is.

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