Skip to main content

Cut on the bias

Neil DeMarco believes that examiners confuse partisanship with unreliability, and confuse students as a result.

The issue of bias continues, spectre-like, to haunt the school history curriculum. It stalks both teacher and pupil, leaving them confused and frustrated.

This question appeared in one of the 1992 GCSE Modern World History papers in reference to a series of sources about the war in Vietnam: " 'All accounts of the war are biased.' With reference to these sources, explain whether you agree or disagree with this statement."

If there were a degree of consensus among teachers on what bias in history might actually be, then such questions would have their place. But there is not. Bias, in fact, is a huge red herring and it has uselessly dogged teachers of school history for more years than I care to remember. The problem has been aggravated by authors - this one included - and exam setters.

The following source (E), also about Vietnam, was used in another GCSE paper in June 1994. It quoted Pham Van Dong, the founder of the Vietminh, speaking in 1964: "The US can go on increasing aid to South Vietnam. It can increase its own army personnel. I hate to see the war go on, develop, intensify. Yet our people are determined to struggle. It is impossible for Westerners to understand the force of the people's will to resist, and to continue. The struggle of our people exceeds the imagination. It has astounded us too. " It was paired with another source (D), a North Vietnamese woodcut of an armed woman, holding a baby, with the text: "We will fight and fight from this generation to the next."

The question which accompanied these sources read: "Both these sources were produced by the Vietnamese resistance forces. In what ways might this affect their reliability as evidence of the Vietnamese struggle against the US? Explain your answer fully."

I think this is a valid question. However, it implicitly invites pupils to comment on the supposed bias evident in these sources and the issue of bias becomes confused with that of reliability. Pupils use it as a means of avoiding real evaluation. A source which expresses a view is immediately categorised as biased and therefore "unreliable" and no longer worthy of discussion.

My pupils answered this question as a class exercise and several of them - despite being very able - still picked out the supposed bias in both sources and used this to diminish the value of the sources. One wrote: "As both sources D and E were produced by the Vietnamese resistance forces, ie VC and NVA, it makes them less reliable, as there is a strong possibility they would be bias (sic) against the US."

The danger is that pupils end up seeing bias and reliability as antithetical and this is the not the case since a source can clearly be both "biased" (however you interpret that word) and reliable for some purposes. But my contention is that there isn't any real bias in these sources. They both express firm views in support of the North Vietnamese cause as you would expect.

The exam board described as a high level response an answer which started with: "As both sources D and E were produced by the Vietnamese resistance forces they are bound to be biased in favour of the Vietnamese and against the Americans." The pupil here may be using the term "biased" in a casual, colloquial way, to reflect the fact that these sources are hostile to the Americans. That may be acceptable but it means something very different to the question in the 1992 paper quoted above. It is this ambiguity which surrounds the issue which makes it such a fraughtand, ultimately, pointless exercise.

If bias in sources exists, then so must its antithesis. What does an unbiased source look like? Against whose account would we describe Trotsky's History of the Russian Revolution as biased? Is unbiased the same as neutral?

Se n Lang in a well-argued piece in the October 1993 issue of Teaching History made the point that "all sources are biased, so it makes little sense to ask children to identify the ones that are". He went on to argue that children should be encouraged not to identify whether a source may be biased but to identify in what ways the source is biased. None the less, we end up with the problem that if all sources exhibit bias to some degree, what use does the term have?

If the term is to have any methodological value to us as teachers we need to confine questions related to bias to those occasions when the source deliberately sets out to distort the evidence or gives rise to a version of events which is demonstrably false. Examples of the former are infrequently found. Photographic evidence which has been tampered with is a good example (such as the painting out of Trotsky from the Stalinist version of the Russian Revolution). In addition, a source may give rise to bias because it inadvertently leaves out germane issues which could be seen to conflict with the view expressed.

If we apply these criteria to the sources from the exam paper quoted above, then pupils can assert that neither of the sources is biased since there is nothing in them which distorts the evidence or is demonstrably false. What they could usefully do then is identify, perhaps, the way they seek to bolster the morale of the Communist forces against the Americans and that they are indeed reliable as evidence of the methods used to achieve this.

I struggle relentlessly with my GCSE pupils to get across to them that:

o the expression of a point of view, however forcibly put, does not necessarily involve bias

o bias is present only in sources which give a false or distorted picture of the past

o biased sources can be both useful and reliable.

But real bias, when it does it manifest itself, is a nasty thing indeed. Ask those Third Division referees who have awarded Fulham so few penalties this season.

Neil DeMarco is head of history at Chesham High School, Bucks

Log in or register for FREE to continue reading.

It only takes a moment and you'll get access to more news, plus courses, jobs and teaching resources tailored to you