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The Primary Source Problem

Last week when we were talking about the Texas School Board, a couple of posts here and in connection with the brief article in SLJ asked why we couldn’t move away from all interpretations of history and instead give kids facts, or have them build up their sense of history from primary sources. I love primary sources, and I totally disagree. The impulse was commendable — take history entirely out of the hands of the current agendas of teachers, school boards, administrators, and just give to the kids straight. Make history either (or both) pure information, and entirely built up out of evidence, artifacts, from the time. More broadly — as surely many of you know — there is a strand in education that wants to train young people to develop the skills used by experts in that field. The idea is that people who really practice history, or math, or biology use mental strategies that we can bring to high school students — critical thinking, establishing context, checking sources, etc.

I am actually for almost the opposite approach — with a sprinkle of primary sources. I think students need to see that history can be seen in very different ways depending on your point of view. There is not just a right and wrong, but, rather, a healthy debate. History matters in part because it both reflects and challenges how we see the world today. Thus necessarily those who lived in a different time both crafted and were challenged by other views of the past. I would like students to be engaged by seeing competing views of an event — then, having seen how the historian’s view changes what s/he derives from the past, the student should be given some primary sources to examine. Once the students begin to become aware of how his or her views color how they interpret evidence they are ready to look at evidence.

The problem with primary sources is that they are both not what we want and too much of what we want. That is — they were created by people of a different period for their own reasons. So, first, you need to sift and sort through endless masses of them to find material to answer your questions. If a teacher presorts, then these are no longer primary sources, they are a display reflecting the teacher’s views and expectations. But second, even when you find exactly what you want in a primary source, you have to question it — did it mean what you think it means when it was created? And you cannot know that unless you know the context of the person who created it — which you can only find out from secondary sources.  Primary sources are a terrific challenge and opportunity. They are a hands on field trip to the process of historical inquiry. But like any class trip, they only fit every so often, and after careful preparation. I say this in part because I doubt any teacher has the time to really explore documents from the past with her class. If I am wrong, that is great — but it is the opposite of what I’ve heard from harried, pressed, over-scheduled teachers.


  1. And let’s not forget that the teacher ( hopefully ) changes and grows intellectually as well. I had a teacher who was a radical in the 60’s and now has a much more nuanced view on life ; he hasn’t turned around 180 degrees but his outlook has been influenced by a number of life experiences.
    I have just spent the past couple of weeks studying the Congress of Vienna in order to teach my fifth grade students and it is amazing to me how little I learned about this
    period of time when I was a student. I spent time reviewing animated maps and I was shocked by my own interpretations.
    I am always shocked by how little time teachers spend keeping up on content. And it seems to me that it is a mistake to mandate so many technique training classes for teachers ( I am going to one next week ). I think that if we are informed and enthusiastic about our subjects that goes a long way – kids sense sincerity. One time, I told a class that I had made an error the week before and wanted to correct it. One student said to me ” Oh , don’t worry, people give us misinformation all the time “. There was no sense of outrage on the part of the students although everyone shared a communal chuckle.

  2. Marc Aronson says:

    Mira: I am a big fan of more content education for teachers. The more teachers know about a subject the more avenues they can open for their students, the more flexibility they have in dealing with responses from students, the more engaging the class is. I’ve always thought the Congress of Vienna would make for a terrific learning game — the diplomacy was so interesting, it is national poker, and kids could learn a great deal by playing it

  3. What a great idea – my summer project. Thanks !

  4. Marc Aronson says:


    Keep us informed — maybe we can get more classes involved in playing, and learning, diplomacy poker.


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