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.