I trust all of you have seen this — http://tinyurl.com/25mxpzg the next step in the move to have national, rather than state, standards for K-12 education. In particular, the emphasis on historical literacy. This may well be very good news — or at least it has the potential to be. But I’ve been thinking more about this primary source question — and the article in the Times mentions five historical documents students are expected to have read. I realize that I have two objections to primary sources: first, to do it right, to really read a primary source well, you need a lot of preparation. In 11th grade we spent the entire year getting ready to read Moby Dick, and then reading it. We were able to tackle it because we were ready. What was true then for that classic novel is certainly true for any historical document — you need to know the time, the context, the language, the authors, to be able to really understand and interpret the document. You need to treat primary sources as carefully as great novels or, what they are really most like, works in a foreign language. You wouldn’t ask first year Spanish students to read the Quijote. They read it when they can. Exactly the same is so about primary sources — you should read them — when you can.
And that brings me to what I find so strangely absent in the discussion of primary sources: what students really need to read, and can read, and should read, is secondary sources. They should see how three different authors treat the same topic — that would expose them to historiography, point of view, context, respect for sources, etc. Students should compare and contrast left and right, new and old, views of the same past. That seems so obvious — why ask students to bumble through what is essentially a foreign language (indeed the very foreigness of the language is the entire point of the exercise) instead of reading in plain modern English books that look at that same past from differing points of view?
Well these are debates we are going to have. But for the moment, it does look like the state standards mists are clearing, and that is promising.