Monday, May 23, 2016
The Art of Teaching History, Vol. II, No. 1 - Why Secondary Sources Matter
Why Secondary Sources Matter
Recently there was a discussion in a FaceBook historical society page where someone said that primary sources were all that mattered and that secondary sources had no value in historical research. As a historian and educator, I am appalled that someone would say that. Both primary and secondary sources must be used in conjunction with each other in order to develop a sound historical interpretation.
Those of you who already have your MA in History know that you will be writing a literature review and it involves secondary sources (Expect to spend a long time on this at the doctorate level). There is no way to develop and sustain a historical interpretation without studying secondary sources. Woe to anyone who tries that because they will be torn apart in the peer review process should they make it that far.
Speaking of peer review, it is worth noting that there are people who avoid peer review and oddly enough, secondary sources as well. One only has to mention David Barton or Thomas DiLorenzo to see two people (neither of whom hold a degree in history) who fail to be taken seriously by historians. As a result, these two avoid peer review at all costs. It is also interesting to note that in most cases the people who challenge historians have no historical training whatsoever. Yet, they seem to think they are experts.
Here in Lauren Anderson's article on the US Intellectual History Blog we see several myths discussed. As a historian and educator I have experience in encountering those myths. I teach history at a community college and use primary sources. Most of the students have no idea what these sources are. If they are handed nothing but primary sources, they will not learn much if anything about the subject. They have no training in using the sources, nor do they understand the setting the sources were written (or developed. Not all primary sources are written documents) or the context involved in their creation.
An experience I had in this involved Thomas Jefferson's "Fire Bell in the Night" letter to John Holmes. I put the letter on the screen and had the students read it. I then asked them what it meant. This was the American History to 1865 survey course, so we were past the halfway point of the semester. They had handled multiple primary sources and had been taught how to use them. None of them understood that it was about slavery. Yet, we know that Jefferson was discussing slavery in this letter.
They vaguely understood that the document involved Missouri. They lacked contextual understanding until I explained the history involved and what was taking place in 1820. One student asked me how I got slavery from the document. I went through it line by line and explained the history involved. At the end of the lesson, they understood what the document was about. I then pointed them to other sourc
es, both primary and secondary, to develop a better understanding of what was taking place then.
It was important to do that. They needed to understand that it was not my opinion alone that determined what the document was about, but rather the collective body of historians over time's opinions. Also, it was important that they understand how our interpretations of history change over time. That's where historiography comes into play.
The lesson involving this source was one that can be done with a lot of primary sources. However, do not expect students to learn history from primary sources alone. They will not. It takes a good foundation of historical learning or analytical skill development in conjunction with historical learning to be able to use primary sources in great numbers. Even then that foundation requires using secondary sources. Why would anyone think students would not need secondary sources? They do need them. They need a good textbook for reference as well although that can take many forms.