The discussion theme over at the CCBC listserve has been on nonfiction — first books in the elementary years, now middle grade and high school. Woven in to that discussion — which generally wavers between people listing fave raves and broader and more thematic posts — has been concern about exactly the same issue I posted about last week: the way CC seems to favor short NF texts drawn from primary sources, especially in the upper grades. The fear raised by some on CCBC, which kind of matches what Chris Harris seems to favor, is that textbook houses and database providers will soon offer (or are already developing) the Macdonald’s of NF — many happy meals of approved short passages from cannonical documents, doubtless with all sorts of handy supporting materials — such as competing essays and interpretations, along with easy-to-use skill-building frameworks for taking notes and framing reports.
I’ve said this before and I’ll say it again — I am dubious about primary sources. It is very difficult to make sense of material from another era — context is all important. I’m a trained historian and I don’t go to primary sources until I feel very well grounded in secondary sources — I need to know what experts have made of something before I test myself. Otherwise I am so likely to stumble over something that has long been investigated and understood. The example I always use is “pursuit of happiness.” What does that mean? Why is that phrase front and center in the most crucial of American primary source documents? What did it mean to Jefferson, Franklin, and Adams (who collaborated in drafting the DOI)? One view is that this mainly refers to property — the right to enjoy what you own. Another, ventured in Stephen Greenblatt’s wonderful book Swerve, is that it is a bow to Epicurianism — which was important to Jefferson. The one thing I would not do is ask young people “what do you think it means” without giving them any tools, any context, for understanding — not, “what does it mean to you,” but “what did it mean to them?”
If our books have something to offer it is something in between the document and its meaning — our hunt for answers, our insight filtered through our adult learning, our method of thought and study. I could see an interesting kind of book that offered a primary source, competing interpretations, and then a chapter in which an author who writes for those readers picks his or her way through the thicket — offering a model response. But that is not a happy meal, it is a slow exploration — better for the stomach, and the brain.