How to Read Accounts of Historic Events

In my Freshman Seminar, I’m teaching my students – among many other things – how to approach the reading of different kinds of texts. Today, we will talk about reading history and will then try to apply the rules I list in this post to Bartolome de Las Casas’s Brief Account of the Destruction of the Indies.

Here are the basic rules of reading about history that I’m planning to offer to my students:

Things to remember when reading, watching or researching history:

a. There can never be a fully objective account of history

b. Don’t read accounts of history to find out what happened. Read them to discover what their author says happened

c. Only by accessing and contrasting different accounts can we figure out what took place

d. Every account of history is always ideological

e. There is always a hidden reason for why a person writes about history

Questions to ask:

  1. Who is the author?
  2. What do I know about this author? Country of origin, political affiliation, profession, etc.
  3. How does this knowledge about the author change my understanding of his or her text?
  4. What is the goal the author is trying to achieve with this text?
  5. What kind of data is used to support the author’s conclusions?
  6. What kind of attitude does the author have towards the readers of the text?
  7. What are the central concepts that organize the author’s thinking about this subject?

Is there anything else I should add? Feel free to offer suggestions (or dispute what I have written here, of course).


There are a few topics that we address in my course on Hispanic Civilization that I use to measure if a student is completely hopeless or not. Quipus are one such topic.

 This legacy of the quechua people is one of the fascinating things I discuss in my series of lectures on Hispanic Civilization. I usually ask the students to guess what these are. They start offering suggestions, and the excitement in the classroom grows.

When I finally reveal that this is the quechua equivalent of a book, the students all gasp in amazement. If there is a student who still doesn’t wake up even for something as stunning as this, I know that s/he is a lost cause intellectually.

I very rarely encounter such indifferent students, though. Usually, 20 minutes into my lecture on the indigenous civilizations of the Americas, everybody is awake and listening breathlessly.

“Ah, you just wait a little,” I always think. “Next week when we will talk about the European conquest of the Americas I will have you all sobbing.”

Gladiators: Another Funny Teaching Story

The good news is that as long as I keep teaching, there will always be funny stories to share with my blog’s readers.

I was talking about the rise of the Inquisition in Medieval Spain. (The Spanish Inquisition was established by the Catholic Kings Ferdinand and Isabella in 1478). A student raises her hand.

Me: Yes?

Student: When are you going to talk about the gladiators?

Me: You want me to talk about the gladiators?

Student (enthusiastically): Yes, I’d love to hear about them.

Me: Does anybody else want me to talk about the gladiators?

Students (all speaking excitedly at the same time): Yes! The gladiators! They are so cool!

Of course, the gladiators were around about a millenium and a half before the rise of the Inquisition. But hey, why should I dampen this kind of enthusiasm for history?

So I talked about the gladiators and managed to connect this discussion to the topic of our course on Hispanic civilization (the Roman Empire, Spanish as a Romance language, the consolidation of Spanish as a language in its own right and not just a degraded version of Latin, etc.)

I can’t tell you, people, how much I love teaching. When I stand there, in front of a classroom, talking about this stuff that interests me so much and see the rapt, curious, young faces of my students (and, of course, anybody is young while they are receptive to new knowledge), there is nothing that can compare to this feeling. It feels a little bit like flying. They’ll have to cart me off to the funeral home straight from a classroom because I’m never giving this up.