Helpful Hints

Helpful hints for writing a document analysis, and for thinking in general:

Do not merely repeat the document says. The significance of Thomas Paine’s statement that “I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life” is not that “Thomas Paine believed in one God, and no more.” The significance of Voltaire is not that he “defended tolerance.” Of course he defended tolerance! He says explicitly and repeatedly that that’s what he is doing.

Instead, you need to go a step beyond what the document says and analyze it. Some potential questions to answer, if you’re writing on Voltaire: Why does Voltaire defend tolerance, in the time and place that he does? How do his ideas differ, if at all, from those of the other philosophes? Why was intolerance being practiced anyway – is it only because religion is evil, or does it have to do with fervency of belief (i.e. the minute you start to practice tolerance, you admit that your religion might not be true)? Is Voltaire being fair to the Church – or is he a self-righteous jerk? Certainly, if the Church was as bad as he said it was, why was he not burned at the stake for his ideas? Are his ideas actually workable? Etc., etc. It might require some close reading of the textbook, or even some outside reading, to answer these questions. Feel free to do it!

Do not say that the significance of some past idea or institution is that “it’s still in use today.” I realize that I have said that the purpose of history is to help us understand the world as it now is. That is true, but it is not the point of a document analysis, which should be focused firmly on the past. What is it about the time and place that a document was composed that influenced its content? This question can be asked just as easily (and just as fruitfully) about documents whose ideas are no longer in fashion.

Do not praise the document as a substitute for analyzing it. I think there’s often a sense among students that if something is assigned in class, it’s somehow “good”, or the teacher believes in it on a certain level, and the appropriate response is to praise it, as you might laugh at your boss’s jokes. Some teachers may have their egos stroked by this behavior, but many do not. They are much more interested in seeing independent thought on the part of the students. You can praise something, to be sure, but also you need to explain precisely why it’s praiseworthy. In the same way, do not say that someone “stood up for what he believed in,” one of the highest compliments, it seems, among students these days. Why did he believe what he did? What were the consequences of the belief? Etc.