Why teach primary sources?

I am debating in my mind an assumption of social studies teachers everywhere and I know it’s in the Common Core: having students interpret primary source documents. Just to be clear this is one of those rough drafts of my thoughts kind of posts. What that means is critique my ideas like crazy but don’t hold me to any position I might take here because I am not taking a stance that primary sources shouldn’t be taught. I am asking why we do and if we have good reasons.

I probably need to differentiate between types of primary source materials. Photos, art, movies, images of time period objects, seem like great primary sources to use to help students comprehend a time period. I am really thinking about text-based primary sources that are often written at a very high vocabulary level and use obscure words.

Analyzing primary sources of many types is the primary job of historians. Most of our students will not grow up to be historians. I am thinking about primary sources in much the same way that I think about the quadratic formula in algebra: important to mathematicians but not very practical to the rest of us. So future historians need to know how to read and interpret primary sources documents but do all students?

 Is it our job to teach the skills one needs to be a professional historian or is it our job to expose students to the patterns of history and to teach them to think critically?

This week we spent a day exploring the Triangle Waistshirt Factory Fire. We watched this short clip from the history channel:

This is a historical re-enactment of the tragic fire that includes many important details to the context of the situation and why it is important historically. Afterward students gave correct and thoughtful answers in a discussion about what happened, the results, and why it still matters today. We could have read historical accounts from journals of survivors, looked at newspaper articles the next day, etc. Some of my students would have really engaged with that. The truth is though that I have many reluctant readers who would probably just stare at the documents, bored and never engage because of difficult vocabulary, complex, sentence structures, and old English words. If a video gives the same content that a primary source does, but in a more interesting format, and leads to a deep level of understanding and solid discussion, what is the advantage of using the primary source?

Is it being a “literacy snob” to value primary sources over other forms of literacy?

Some teachers will argue that the critical thinking skills and interpretation skills learned through analyzing primary source documents are important for all students.  Again I think that we can teach those skills without using primary source materials necessarily. My goal in my classes is to challenge students to become thoughtful citizens.

Are we forcing a “skill” on students that is not relevant to them and actually makes the subject boring to students?

7 thoughts on “Why teach primary sources?

  1. Aaron Ross

    It is not being a snob at all. Someone who learns only secondary material will wind up being generally informed about the topic, based on the interpretations of others. Someone who learns primary sources will gain the ability to form their own opinions on the topic, and will gain the skills to do the same for other issues. That is not training to be a professional historian – that is training to be a thoughtful and responsible citizen.

    1. admin


      Not saying I disagree with you but just pushing back to stretch my thinking. Isn’t most of the information that we come across in life from secondary sources already? For example, most of the news reports are secondary.

      I guess the other part of my argument/question is the need for “text based” primary sources as opposed to video/image primary sources. Most primary source stuff today comes in multi-media form from cell phones and interviews.

      Few students will actually read a paper, but consume news through online sources which are usually embedded with pics and video. So part of my questions are we overemphasizing text literacy vs. other forms of literacy?

      1. Aaron Ross

        Clearly, most of what we read is from secondary sources. However, my contention is that the more one has been trained to also read primary sources, the more one will be able to critically evaluate what he or she reads in the secondary reporting. Reading original sources requires the ability to pay close attention to every detail that is valuable when reading others’ accounts of the original.
        BTW, I am primarily a teacher of Jewish texts and thus this is my stock-in-trade. In particular, I spend real time helping my students focus on the nuances of the text and showing them how later commentaries and interpretations are the results of close and fine readings of the originals.

  2. Brody Brown

    A teachers job is to get a student to understand the topic of discussion. Some students are able to understand it better with a video or from an article. If you get them to understand the topic then I do not see why a teacher can not use a variety of sources. But I do think using a journal entry or newspaper article from the period of the Triangle Waistshirt Factory Fire makes the student think harder and better understand it.

  3. Janet

    I’m a high school English teacher, and so far this year I have introduced two primary sources to my students: George Washington’s Farewell Address and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address. I’m not saying my students overjoyed to read those two documents, especially the Farewell Address, but some interesting things happened while we read them.
    1) One class spent 10 minutes discussing Washington’s warning America not to be a “satellite” to other nations and the merits of that metaphor.
    2) One boy was shocked at how many synonyms Washington used for the word “hate.” But shocked in a good way. He was amazed that there were that many ways to say something ,and Washington knew them all.
    3) One girl wondered why Lincoln repeated the word “nation” instead of “country.” Another girl replied that it was like the Cherokee Nation. We were one people, with one identity. Country merely indicated a geographical distinction.
    4) A group of students loved the way Lincoln started the speech with the word “conceived” and how that word led to the “rebirth of the nation.” They wanted to know if he realized he was doing that.

    I guess my point is that I have probably spent the past 23 years underestimating what my students were capable of. I’m not going to do that anymore.

  4. Bill Strickland

    Great question(s)! I think one of the skills transferable to ANY occupation that a history/social studies course can teach is Contextualization. Why did the author choose THAT unusual word? What ELSE was going on before this document was written that influenced why the author wrote the document. In my AP World class we call this “POV” but it’s really Contextualization. Why did THIS author create THIS document at THIS time? (Instead of some other author, an alternative doc, or at a later occasion) While this might seem to be history-specific I think it’s transferable to any occupation, industry, or field of inquiry. When your students work in their small groups to research their projects, they quickly learn subtle personality traits of each other. If “Chris” says “X,” it means something different than if “Juan” says exactly the same thing because Chris and Juan are different people who exaggerate or minimize different things. e.g. “Chris is always that animated. You can’t take what he/she says literally, but if Juan raises even one eyebrow you’d better write down what he was saying!”
    Also, (and this is a very minor point) I try to teach my students that historical sources are not inherently “Primary” or “Secondary” in and of themselves. It all depends on what QUESTION the source is being used to answer. Example: If I pick up my world history textbook (and I know you don’t use them, you lucky dog!) and ask, “What were the Mongols doing in the 13th century?” the text is obviously a secondary source. But if I ask, “How was World History taught in 2013?” the text suddenly becomes a primary source. A picayune distinction, but crucial to getting students used to the idea that THEY control “what history tells us” because THEY control the questions being asked.

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