Have you ever tried to explain what a primary source is in intellectual history? If you concentrate on this kind of object is and this kind of object is not, it can get very confusing, especially if you are studying historiography or how history has been taught. A textbook suddenly goes from a “tertiary” source to a primary one.
I had an excellent article handed to me this week, Keith C. Barton, “Primary Sources in History: Breaking Through the Myths” Phi Delta Kappan (June 2005): 745-753. Barton argues that we should do away with “primary” and “secondary” classifications of sources precisely for this confusion.
Note the intellectual history nature of his examples: “The nature of a source does not derive from the kind of object it is (i.e., a letter versus a textbook), but from the purpose it serves in a historical investigation. If a historian (or a history student) wants to know how textbooks of the 1940s portrayed interactions between Native Americans and Europeans in the 18th century, then those textbooks are primary sources; for information on the interactions themselves, however, they are by no means primary. Similarly, if we want to know what George Washington thought about British treatment of prisoners of war, his letters are primary sources, but if we want to know how those soldiers actually were treated, the same letters are secondary sources. The simple fact that a document is a textbook or a letter provides no indication of whether it should be classified as primary or secondary.” (750)
He suggests that instead, we stop trying to make the distinction between secondary and primary and instead use a phrase like “original historical sources.”
To encourage you to read the article, let me quote the myths and Barton’s suggestions for using primary sources, after the jump.
1. Primary sources are more reliable than secondary sources.
2. Primary sources can be read as arguments about the past.
3. Historians use a ‘sourcing heuristic’ to evaluate bias and reliability.
4. Using primary sources engages students in authentic historical inquiry.
5. Students can build up an understanding of the past through primary sources.
6. Primary sources are fun.
7. Sources can be classified as ‘primary’ or ‘secondary.’
Unique contributions of original historical sources for teaching
1. To motivate historical inquiry.
2. To supply evidence for historical accounts.
3. To convey information about the past.
4. To provide insight into the thoughts and experiences of people in the past.
“Effective use of original historical sources requires careful attention to their educational purposes. Each of the myths in this article derives from the assumption that analyzing sources constitutes an end in itself….”
I am going to bring a mammy doll into my class on Monday and ask what we can learn from it and how we should interpret it. (The little white “chile” head fell out in transportation). I’m hoping that students will recognize the lack of context that they need, so that I can then whip out the book “Mammy and Uncle Mose: Black Collectibles and American Stereotyping” and give a brief lecture. But I want to start by just setting the doll on the desk, reading its inscription, passing it around, and asking what students think. The disconnect between what seems obvious, mostly to white students, (ahhhhh, a nice old woman holding a little white “chile”), and what incredible damage dolls like this, in aggregate, did and continue to do is one of the things that got me interested in history. The realization–ohhhhhh, I understand now why it is an injustice!–was a powerful one. I hope, though, that by opening up the field to discussion without first contextualizing, I do not put too much burden on the couple of black students in the class to explain what is wrong with the doll (since I am guessing they might have more context for understanding the stereotype). We’ll see how it goes! I’m also going to show a clip from Duck Soup and go through the same set of questions to analyze it. Perhaps I should show the film first, as a less potentially explosive source, and then move to the mammy doll.