History Heresy

Primary sources are essential to studying history. Or are they? My professional circles tend to see them as the Holy Grail of history. Going back to the actual words people used gets us the real story. Or does it?

Historians go to the archives and make use of primary sources to write their books. I went to the archives to find documents for my Masters thesis and my unfinished dissertation. So, clearly if we want students to do the work of historians they should work with primary sources. Or should they?

My concerns are many. Historians (and graduate students) never go to the sources first. They begin by learning as much of the context as they can. They immerse themselves in the era and the people. Then, they go to the documents.

The danger of holding up documents as “what people thought” is that any one document is woefully incomplete. I cannot imagine anyone piecing together my life, or even my day, from one piece of writing. It is always more complex. Students bring their own assumptions to the study of history, which is to be expected, but they also bring their own understanding of language. Words do not mean the same thing to people across time and space. Translated documents are even more problematic.

I realize that they provide an authentic feel for the past. Or do they? Can my students really get more from reading Tom Paine’s words in Common Sense or would they be better served reading the work of an historian who has placed those words in the context. At the very least, they should read the historian first. And then maybe another historian. Mostly the reaction when students try to read Common Sense is that they have trouble decoding the language and assume that regular people in the 1700s were either smarter than they are or had way too much time on their hands. I’m not sure that’s how I want to spend the limited time and struggle students are willing to give me.

While I think students need to read non-fiction regularly, I think they are better served by reading well-written engaging history. Then, if they are digging deeper with a research project, primary sources might be helpful. The skill of decoding documents becomes less onerous when you actually know enough of the background information. Are we spending too much time on a skill that is too difficult because of the way we design the learning?

To really support historical analysis, a whole series of documents is necessary. It’s not enough to read one newspaper and determine what was important to people in the past. To determine the impact of an event through the media, one would need a more sustained analysis. Historians do this. They also build on the work of one another.

We have held up some as more important than others. When we do that, we skew the history. We acknowledge seminal documents retrospectively. Doing so without the complexity of the context can create a narrow narrative. We like neat, clean, logical narratives. The problem with that is that people’s lives are neither neat, clean, nor logical.

To many of my fellow history teachers, this is heresy. Full disclosure – I am currently thinking of how I will teach the Reformation and Scientific Revolution in my PBL/Inquiry class. That may have something to do with my angst-ridden, iconoclastic, rebellious mindset at the moment.


2 thoughts on “History Heresy

  1. Molly,
    I don’t entirely disagree with you, especially given the age and lack of contextual understanding that students of this age have…however, and perhaps it’s my current bias of having spent time in the Friends School archives, but there is something very interesting about looking at original material from a time period. It may not be relevant to all study of history, but often, I think one can get a different understanding hearing the voice of someone in another time. Again, archival bias, but it is very cool to hold original documents, which obviously all primary sources are not.
    Thanks for your musing!
    Always interesting,

    • Thanks for you comment, Jenn. I don’t think there is no place for primary source documents. I think that they are overemphasized. Often well-written secondary sources can get a student farther in understanding. And, I think it’s different if you feel some connection to the documents. Archival work is not the same as photocopying or reading documents online. There is something cool about working in archives, but that is not what we do in our history classes.

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