Thinking like historians

1. In small groups, take some time to consider what exactly historians do.
  • What tools do they employ in their work?
  • How are historians different from scientists, journalists, novelists and biographers?
  • How important are facts to an historian? What kinds of facts? What is an historical fact?
  • What does it mean to interpret the facts? What role does opinion play in this?
  • What is the difference between interpreting and judging?
  • What does being objective mean? Is it possible to be completely objective?
  • Why is it important for historians to be clear about their own values and beliefs?

2. Apply your history skills

  • How would you respond to a history text that described the Aztecs as 'barbaric' or 'evil', or referred to the conquistador Cortés as a 'mercenary' or 'corrupt'?
  • Why might this type of language be used? What does it reveal about an author's point of view, values and ethics?
  • How might you explain why the Aztecs made human sacrifices without using any judgemental language? Is it possible to write without using the opinions and judgements of the present day? Why?
  • Do you think the Aztecs were 'bloodthirsty barbarians' or a great world civilisation? Explain.

3. Ask 'what if?'
  • In his recent book 1835: The Founding of Melbourne and the Conquest of Australia, James Boyce asks, could it have been different? Did the continent have to be colonised in this way? Apply this question to the conquest of Aztec civilisation. Write down your response.
  • Write an alternative account of how it could have happened. (Thinking about another example closer to home - such as the European colonisation of Australia - might help you to create an imaginative response to this task. Think about the way that story keeps changing and being told in different ways.) Consider what your values and ethics are today - about life, death and society - and how these impact on your account.
  • How does the story of the Spanish colonisation of the Americas confront the beliefs, values and ethics you have today? Which beliefs, values and ethics are challenged? What did you find difficult in trying to describe the colonisation of the Americas in a different way? What solutions did you come up with?