The way we usually learn about history is different than in every other subject. In music, class we listen to music and sing, and often learn to play an instrument. For art class, we learn about drawing, painting, and sculpting by actually drawing, painting and sculpting, as well as viewing real works of art. In language arts, we use paper, pen, and voice- the tools of the reader, writer, and speaker- to read literature, compose prose and poetry, and discuss content. We learn math by adding, subtracting, multiplying, and dividing numbers, and science often involves experiments and observing the natural world using the principles of chemistry, physics, and tools like magnifying glasses and microscopes.
As for history- we don’t really ‘do’ history. A traditional history class revolves around reading heavily edited and condensed articles about people, places, and dates in textbooks, rounded out by the occasional field trip to a historic landmark. This seems rather thin when compared to how much we can immerse ourselves in other subject areas. Is there a better way?
Yes, there is. By using the same tools that historians use, we can offer a much more enjoyable and accurate view of history.
The main tool of the historian is primary sources. A primary source is something that was created by a person who experienced an event, or was an eye witness to that event. These could be in the form of artifacts, letters, diaries, legal documents, audio or visual recordings, transcripts of speeches.
Primary sources are original materials. They are from the time period involved and have not been filtered through interpretation or evaluation. Primary sources are original materials on which other research is based. They are usually the first formal appearance of results in physical, print or electronic format. They present original thinking, report a discovery, or share new information.
Secondary sources are also used, but are not considered as reliable as primary sources.
Secondary sources are less easily defined than primary sources. Generally, they are accounts written after the fact with the benefit of hindsight. They are interpretations and evaluations of primary sources. Secondary sources are not evidence, but rather commentary on and discussion of evidence. However, what some define as a secondary source, others define as a tertiary source. Context is everything.
What does a historian do with these sources? They look for patterns of cause and effect, as well as similarities and differences between peoples, times, and places; they assess the evidence to provide explanations for changes in how groups and societies interact with each other; they map changes in cultures and governments and offer insights into human nature. Historians are like detectives, only they examine clues left by the past. The quality and chain of evidence is as important to them as fingerprints, hair and fibers, and DNA is to the crime scene investigator.
If we use the tools of the reader, writer, artist, and scientist to study those content areas, why not use the tools of the historian to study history?
Not only is this the most effective way to learn history, it is also the most economical. With the internet and the public library, primary source documents are down the street, or just a couple of clicks away.
Here are some links to primary sources online:
- United States National Archives Teaching with Documents Lesson Plans
- Constitution.org Treasury of Primary Documents
- California State University Primary Documents Online
While secondary sources are not considered as reliable as original source documents, secondary and tertiary sources provide students with an excellent opportunity to discuss and debate the interpretations of the authors of those sources.
Example Lesson: The Emancipation Proclamation (1863)
- Read the transcript of the document, then read it out loud as one would in delivering a speech.
- Read the transcript of the Preliminary Emancipation Proclamation of 1862. Are there differences between these two documents?
- With a map of the United States, outline and label the areas affect by the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Listen to the audio of an interview with former slave Charlie Smith, as he describes his life after the Emancipation Proclamation.
- Rewrite the Emancipation Proclamation in modern English.
- Watch videos produced by modern historians, find the sources they quote, and discuss the views they present. What did they say that was verifiable fact, and what was simply their opinion?
With even more primary sources at The Civil War Trust website, students can examine political cartoons from that time and discuss the political views behind them, and then take a quiz to test their memory of the events surrounding the end of the Civil War.
History deserves to be studied with more effort and treated with more respect than is given by traditional methods. By using primary sources, we exercise our ability to combine different kinds of evidence, learn to think critically about conflicting reports and interpretations, and apply patterns and principles to modern and future history.