Good History Classes Need Primary AND Secondary Sources

Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post
Photo Credit: Kathryn Scott Olser and the Denver Post

To teach the principles of historical thinking in a classroom without the aid of primary source documentation is the equivalent of teaching someone to play guitar without giving them an instrument to practice on. During the G.W. Bush “No Child Left Behind” Era (and no doubt before that) education leaders in the United States preached the gospel of standardized testing. Through the use of history textbooks, pre-written tests (usually in the form of multiple choice scantron forms without any written essay questions), and pre-written classroom activities, a generation of historically-informed youth would acquire a correct and appreciative view of the nation’s past, which in turn would promote good citizenship and a healthy obedience to democratic values. As a high schooler in the early 2000s I was frequently treated to long-winded lectures about supposedly “important” dates, dead people, and dust, a barrage of multiple-choice tests, and assigned readings in history textbooks that would place the worst insomniac into a deep sleep. Primary sources–the “musical instruments of history”–were nowhere to be found in my high school education. My own teaching experiences in 2011 and 2012 were equally frustrating once I realized how little control I had in the design of my unit plans.

The No Child Left Behind (and President Obama’s “Race to the Top”) framework for teaching k-12 history is now being challenged by some historians and educators. The College Board recently drafted a new framework for teaching Advance Placement U.S. History courses that shifts the focus from rote memorization of factual information to the critical analysis and interpretation of primary source documentation. These proposed changes call for shifting the classroom experience towards teaching historical content and historical process. They also emphasize a broad view of history showing that our nation’s history is subject to multiple interpretations and perspectives.

If we adhere to the belief that history is a complex landscape composed of many viewpoints, however, the place of United States history within that landscape becomes more ambiguous than the NCLB framework would have us believe. The nationalist leanings of the American state–built largely on the foundations of a shared national history and the mythical stories we teach each other about that history–might be placed on infirm foundations. Beliefs in American exceptionalism could be replaced by a crisis of patriotism. The heroic can be challenged and criticized. Obedience to the social status quo transitions to questioning, dissent, and potential civil disobedience.

Unsurprisingly, there are critics who are concerned about teaching a complex form of American history that places our heroes, our “good wars,” and our heritage in limbo. Stanley Kurtz says the College Board’s revisions are “an attempt to hijack the teaching of U.S. history on behalf of a leftist political ideological perspective.” The Texas State Board of Education accuses the College Board of encouraging a “disdain for American principles.” And a Jefferson County, Colorado, School Board Member named Julie Williams is proposing that a new nine-member committee be formed to inspect U.S. history textbooks in the Jefferson County School District because, according to her, “I don’t think we should encourage kids to be little rebels. We should encourage kids to be good citizens” (high school students in the district are now protesting these school board proposals. Who says kids don’t care about history?).

Is there a better way to teach history, expose students to its “truths,” and remove its politics from the classroom?

One idea that is gaining steam throughout the country calls for the complete removal of history textbooks from the history curriculum. Public schools in Nashville, Tennessee, are removing textbooks from the classroom in favor of websites, “interactive” videos, and primary source documentation, all of which are being implemented through $1.1 million in funds for the 2014-2015 academic year. Historian and educator Fritz Fischer argues (but with a dose of skepticism) that these changes are welcome because “not relying on traditional history books cuts down on the potential for ‘textbook wars’ where residents object to certain conclusions.” Stephanie Wager of the Iowa Department of Education concurs, arguing that “you don’t really need to have the traditional textbook.” If we simply remove these politicized textbooks from the classroom, we can focus on primary sources and let students make their own conclusions from the historical evidence presented to them.

I agreed with this perspective a year ago, but I don’t agree with getting rid of history textbooks (or at least a selection of secondary-source readings) now. Here’s why:

For one, the notion that students will automatically learn more and prefer the use of fancy digital tools and “interactive” materials rather than print books is based on the faulty logic that today’s students are “digital natives” who are more comfortable using digital technology than older people who did not grow up around this technology. I addressed those claims here.

Secondly, removing secondary sources from the classroom prevents students from learning about the interpretive nature of history and how our understanding of the past is constantly revised as new questions about the present prompt new questions about the past. Jim Grossman is right when he argues that revisionism is fundamental to historical inquiry, and we lose that critical component of the historian’s toolbox when we simply throw primary sources at students without showing them how historians interpret and sometimes disagree with the meaning of those documents. If primary sources are the “musical instrument” with which historians conduct their performances, secondary sources are the “technique” we employ to help us competently perform with our musical instruments.

Thirdly, primary source documents are laced with their own biases, speculative claims, faulty memories, and political agendas. If you don’t believe that, just imagine what sorts of primary sources historians of the early 2000s will have at their disposal one hundred years from now. The best contemporary historical scholarship provides us strategies for assessing the reliability of a primary source, and that scholarship should be an integral part of the classroom experience. Again, just giving students the “facts” without giving them a framework for critically thinking about those “facts” does little to advance their own understanding of history’s complexities.

History is political and always will be. The United States has plenty of accomplishments to be proud of, but an unquestioning self-congratulatory narrative of progress doesn’t tell the whole story of this nation’s history. And it’s boring! We need to teach both content and process in the history classroom. We need more primary sources in the classroom, but we also need more secondary sources that do a better job of providing students with a framework for interpreting those primary sources. And we need to show students how the very nature of American identity and citizenship has changed over time, which means taking a critical look at both the good AND bad in American history.


7 thoughts on “Good History Classes Need Primary AND Secondary Sources

  1. Reblogged this on and commented:
    Nick Sacco has posted an article at Exploring the Past explaining why primary sources are critical for understanding history. Recent attacks on the College Board’s revisions to the Advanced Placement test by ideologues such as Stanley Kurtz, the consistently retrograde Texas State Board of Education and members of the Jefferson County School Boards have placed the teaching of US history in the spotlight. These critics are terrified of “teaching a complex form if American history.” Secondary sources are essential to teaching form of American history. Sacco does an outstanding job explaining the secondary sources play in the curriculum. Check out Sacco’s post.

  2. I think this is an issue for LOCAL schools. The more centralized the organization the more chance there will be that it will get hijacked by politics and big businesses–like the ones who stand to make a lot of money on testing and textbooks.

    1. Hi there,

      Thanks for commenting. I agree that schools should be leery of doing business with companies that view education and students as financial commodities, and I believe teachers need to be consulted and heavily involved when districts contract with third parties for tests, textbooks, and technologies. If those things are not meeting the needs of teachers, then they need to go.

      Regarding some other points you make: what, exactly, do you mean by local schools? Aren’t all schools in the U.S. local? Also, *any* organization can be hijacked by politics and big business, regardless of size. “Centralization” can be a good or bad thing depending on the context.

      1. I mean local like town schools until college because if something goes wrong or parents have questions or concerns they know exactly who to speak with. They’ve done studies proving that centralization is actually not cheaper ( the way they often get locals to give up their power).

        I think we should be very careful when we hear centralization thrown about whether it’s in education or politics. Dictatorship of thought and expression is a big concern of mine.

        The more the federal government gets involved in schools the worse our test scores get. I think no one should major in education (how to brainwash and manage children). History (not social studies) should be taught by historians etc.

      2. Hi Middlemay,

        Thanks for clarifying your definition of what you mean by local schools. There are points where we are in agreement and points where we differ just a bit.

        A community that invests itself in its local school districts is going to have a lot of successful students who graduate and go to college. Parents who stay in regular contact with their child’s teachers and keep an eye on their child’s progress in school are helping to ensure their child’s future success. Having problems dealt with efficiently and without any bureaucratic logjams from a local, state, or federal government is important. Giving teachers plenty of room to design their courses as they see fit is important. Having school board members and politicians–again regardless of whether they are local, state, or federal–controlling what gets taught in the classroom can be problematic, especially if these people have no experience teaching.

        You have stated your concerns about the federal government’s role in education, and I think those are fair concerns given the trainwrecks of No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. But the controversies in Colorado and Texas that I’ve cited here are taking place because of beliefs and decisions by local (CO) and state (TX) leadership that have nothing to do with the federal government. If we’re concerned about “dictatorship of thought and expression” in the classroom (I am too), then we need to be as equally concerned about local and state efforts to control free expression as we are about the federal government. Again, government tyranny can take place at any level of government, not just federal.

        Finally, there is a line of argument that suggests that all teachers obtain a degree in a content specialty and not just pursue an education degree. I agree with that line of thinking, but you can’t just walk into a classroom and expect to accomplish anything if you don’t have any knowledge of education theories or understanding of how to communicate with students. Pedagogy is crucial to good teaching. To suggest that a major in education is simply training in brainwashing and child management is wrong.

        Thanks again for participating in this important conversation.

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