Tag Archives: secondary sources

Why you are allowed to be suspicious of history textbooks

History textbooks are dubious things.  On the one hand, they are often large, written in uniform, rather mechanical style, by multiple authors, covering far too broad a range of history, and exceedingly dry.  On the other hand, they are transmitting a single, unified, uncontested narrative of past events without revealing the methods that led to their compiling.  They are really unique animals in the world of history.  Historians are constantly talking about primary and secondary sources: a) primary sources being those texts written by contemporaries  or near-contemporaries of researched events and individuals; b) secondary sources being those books, papers, and presentations produced by professional historians as the result of their research.  Textbooks rank in their own category for me: tertiary sources.  (I also put documentaries in this category as they are frequently catering to TV ratings and rarely directed and produced by professional historians.)


"You can read this without falling asleep? It doesn't even tell you how we know that!"

Tertiary sources

There are several problems with the further removed, tertiary source that we all used in school.  Some of these have already been referenced:

  • they are dry (aka: boring)
  • they are both incredibly condensed and incredibly long
  • they are frequently written by multiple people, and yet in one voice
  • they are several times removed from the passion of detecting and discovery inherent in the real field of history
  • they reveal nothing of their methods
  • they tell people “what happened” supplying “historical facts”–things which don’t precisely exist in the real field of history

Of these, I will lump the first three together, the fourth follows naturally from them, and the fifth naturally from the fourth, but the final point I will address in the following section of the post.

Textbooks are often dull reads.  They are dry.  They sometimes tease us about something we find interesting, but they do not deliver ending the subject before our questions have been answered.  (From my own experience, I can recall the incredibly unsatisfying two paragraphs written about the fascinating North African, Muslim explorer Ibn Battuta, who covered twice the ground as Marco Polo, before Marco Polo did it.  To further compound my frustration, there was no further or recommended reading provided for him.)  This can have a rather stultifying effect in a young and curious student.  Part of the reason for this is the need to create one (dull) voice to unify the contributions of multiple authors.  There are multiple authors because the text book must cover such long and unwieldy period of time, which further results in the minimizing many important points in history.  This further often also results in the exclusion of various sub-fields of history, that leaves a rather minimalist, narrative account, touching on many things but going into detail on few.

Thus, if a historian is passionate about his or her work–which we typically are since we find it interesting, spend a ridiculous amount of money on learning it, and then hope to continue doing it for a living–none of the passion of discovery or enlightenment comes through in the reading of the textbook.
That is, in fact, frequently sanitized from the text.  The individuality of the scholar is, for that matter, sanitized from the text.  Of course, the adventure of history, the methodology which leads historians to their various conclusions is all together absent.  This is problematic in itself, as sharing one’s methodology is an integral part of every other academic history publication except the textbook.  For some reason, there exists a current of thought which does not require that students be initiated into the real thing but simply swallow what they are assigned to read without question.  This heavy-handed approach seems ill-fit to our democratic society.  This leads, finally, to the next point.

Undisputed narratives

History is not a unified, uncontested, all-agreed upon narrative of fact.  None of us were around when Thucydides, Augustus, Ghengis Khan, Charlemagne, Sulyman, Napoleon, or George Washington walked and talked and acted out their lives.  What happened, why it happened, how it happened, and who was involved is frequently contested among leading historians.  One book about John Adams will reveal a different man than another book that covers him.  Not only is this text book approach to history stultifying,  it is also misleading in representing how we know about the past and at times outright manipulative.

When someone tells another what happened in the past, it can shape one’s present and future.  It is simply dangerous to society to have an American history book that misrepresents the past.  In the 1990s, one of Howard Zinn’s students, James W. Loewen, stirred the waters with a book entitled, Lies my Teacher Told Me.  (Zinn and Loewen have their own agendas, but that does not negate some of the essential points Loewen addressed.)  Lowen described his attempt to get his Mississippi state history textbook published with a lynch mob photograph.  Loewen wrote the following:

Lynch mobs often posed for the camera.  They showed no fear of being identified because they knew no white jury would  convict them.  Mississippi: Conflict and Change, a revisionist state history textbook I co-wrote, was rejected by the Mississippi State Textbook Board partly because it included this photograph [a bleary black and white photo of a group of white men around a fire, with a dark figure appearing in the fire].  At the trial that ensued , a rating committee member stated that material like this would make it hard for a teacher to control her students, especially a “white lady teacher” in a predominantly black class.  At this point the judge took over questioning.  “Didn’t lynchings happen in Mississippi?” he asked.  Yes, admitted the rating committee member, but it was all so long ago, why dwell on it now?  “It is a history book, isn’t it?” asked the judge, who eventually ruled in the book’s favor.

~ Lies my Teacher Told Me, caption p. 167

History written with a particular agenda in mind is common among history professionals and their books, but unlike standard textbooks they are required to be upfront about their agenda and their intentions–this is why you should really read the introduction and the concluding chapter!!!  Textbooks are written with agendas all the time, but seldom explain that agenda–indeed, one imagines explaining it would be counterproductive–nor, do they explain issues for which contesting conclusions exist, regardless of the prevalence of the debate within the field.

As a result, even when there is less of an agenda intentionally built into the program of state-taught history, there is nevertheless a misleading and sometimes dated single narrative.  One of the best examples of this from my own specialization is the evolution of our understanding of feudalism.  I have yet to see a textbook deal with the questions raised about our traditional understanding of feudalism–comprised of conclusions made in the middle of the last century–despite encountering textbooks that would were written this century.  How backward can you be in educational discipline?


"So, how does this relationship work, again?"

Beyond the intro-level history classes, college-level history courses abandon textbooks for history monographs written by historians with peer reviews and transparency (ok, some of these are badly written, too, but they are usually academically honest, at least).  They must also account for the historiography of their subject, that is, the conclusions and evolutions in our knowledge of it, which addresses the differences of learned opinion and demonstrates the methodology for effectively concluding about the past.


Filed under Editorials on education

A little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”

Welcome to Historian's Jeopardy!!!

It isn’t the most popular thing I do, but especially in my 101 class I assign a little thing I like to call “Historian’s Jeopardy”!  These give my students fits!  But, they’re good fits.  They’re growing pain-like fits.  I know its frustrating and I do it anyway, not because I am sadist, but because I want them to start thinking like historians–and historical thinking is not an obvious or natural state of thinking, it requires training.  Historians have many years of this training which refines their thinking, so it takes some doing.

This is how it works: I give them an informational tid-bit that one would find in the course of reading primary and secondary sources.  Then, I give them spaces to write questions.  Ideally, they give me two questions of one type–closer to your Jeopardy concept; and, one question that functions as a follow-up.  For example (considering the first type of questions, first):

A:Ausonius, a distinguished poet from Bordeux (in France), writes in high praise of the garum made in the Roman city of Barcino.

Q1: Were ancient cities in the Roman Empire connected by trade routes and trading amongst each other?

Q2: What products were produced and exported by the port city, Barcino?

A:Cities established in Europe by the Romans routinely have theaters, though not as many have stadiums or other arenas.

Q1: What activities did the Romans enjoy in their leisure time?

Q2: How “Roman” were the Empire’s cities in Europe?

A:Livy and Vergil both publish works (one a history the other an epic) about the origins of Rome which are centered around the exploits of a Trojan name Aeneas, who was respected by his Greek enemies for his loyalty to Troy, and his belief that Helen should be returned.  Aeneas will found the culture that eventually produces Romulus and Remus.

Q1: To what degree are the Romans influenced by Greek culture?

Q2: How did Romans understand their own origins, and how noble were they believed to be?

Roman theater and Odeon in Lyon, France.

In prior classes, we spent a significant part of our week on Greece talking about what Greek culture offered to the world (i.e. Hellenism).  Just as Hellenism spread through Alexander’s conquests, so, too, did it and Roman values spread through Roman conquests of Europe.  Roman ruins in Europe, which in turn come from the Greeks, are the foundations of Western Civilization.  This has been emphasized in our classes.  Most of the problems from the exercise are targeted to those concepts.  These are not the only acceptable answers, but they are better answers.

Historians have a vast body of knowledge to complement they’re musings on sources, so it was important to target the information for those areas with which the students were already familiar to give them a fighting chance.  It is still really hard, though, and I try to facilitate success by directing them to the actual evidence provided in the answers.  For example, with the answer above, I directed them to the fact that this answer was giving them specific geography to try to trigger them to use and recognize the value of each piece of information.  As an answer, it clearly relates to a question regarding the places, distances and movement through the Empire.  It also makes specific mention of a product manufactured in a particular city which answers some economic questions.

The next step is the follow-up question.  Once I have realized the value of a piece of information, I need to take advantage of that information.  So, in the first instance above, one is considering the economic movement through the empire.  How far is Barcino (modern day Barcelona) garum travelling?  How much money is Barcino making off this, what else is getting shipped out of its Mediterranean port?  This is how a historian thinks: there are mental chain reactions that stimulate research projects and professional inquiries.  It is a healthy stimulation that benefits the layman as much as the professional historian, not just with history but with current events and news stories, or even simple curiosity and expanded cultural literacy.

In one instance, I specifically referenced a primary source and in others specifically referenced primary sources that they had already read:

A:Polybius writes: But since the position of affairs has brought us to inquire into the genius of Hannibal, the occasion seems to demand that I explain the peculiarities of his character which have been especially controversial. Some regard him as having been extraordinarily cruel, some exceedingly grasping of money. But to speak the truth of him, or of any person engaged in public affairs, is not easy. . . And there are many proofs of this to be found in past history if any one pays attention. . .  Again, was not Cleomenes of Sparta a most excellent king, a most cruel tyrant, and then again as a private individual most obliging and benevolent? And yet it is not reasonable to suppose the most opposite dispositions to exist in the same person. They are compelled to change with the changes of circumstances: and so some rulers often display to the world a disposition as opposite as possible to their true nature. Therefore, the natures of men not only are not brought out by such things, but on the contrary are rather obscured. The same effect is produced also not only in commanders, despots, and kings, but in states also, by the suggestions of friends. For instance, you will find the Athenians responsible for very few tyrannical acts, and of many kindly and noble ones, while Aristeides and Pericles were at the head of the state: but quite the reverse when Cleon and Chares were so. And when the Lacedaemonians (Spartans) were supreme in Greece, all the measures taken by King Cleombrotus were conceived in the interests of their allies, but those by Agesilaus not so. The characters of states therefore vary with the variations of their leaders. King Philip again, when Taurion and Demetrius were acting with him, was most impious in his conduct, but when Aratus or Chrysogonus, most humane.

Q1: How did the Romans regard Hannibal of Carthage?

Q2: How did Romans regard political leaders?

Follow-up: What did the Romans admire in military leaders?

A:Roman authors frequently portray Alexander as a rather cruel tyrant.  (Hint: How is Xerxes described by the Greek authors?)

Q1: How did Romans regard individual leaders with military power?

Q2: Where were Romans critical of their Greek muses?

Follow-up: How much value did Romans put in their Senate and Republic?

Alexander the Great portrayed in a Pompeii mosaic

There are actually more possible answers for these two than the first three examples, but these are some of the directions to take.  Remember that we spent the last two weeks identifying the foundational features of classical Greece and Rome for Western Civilization including a look at city profiles that I prepared for them.

Ephesus #1 – Hittite and Persian city with heavy Greek influence remade by Alexander’s conquest into a Hellenistic city.


Ephesus #2 – Roman era, the roads are remade to Roman standards, porticoes are covered, library and brothel added.

Pompeii – Organized city with forum (Roman version of the Greek agora), gymnasium, theater and odeon.

Barcino #1 – (Modern-day Barcelona) Excavated portions of the modern city reveal commercial area that is producing Roman products.


Ephesus #3 – Evidence of the emergence of a Jewish-cult, Christianity, showcasing the theater referenced in the Acts of the Apostle and Paul’s conflict with the silver smiths of the Artemis cult and the monuments of the Virgin Mary, her house and the first church dedicated to her according to tradition.

Ephesus #4 – In the New Rome era (Byzantine), the Roman city is remade in the mold of Christian Roman city, following Constantine’s conversion.


(The following handout comes out next week–basically the rest of the semester is spent looking back at Rome and by extension Greece, finishing (not beginning with) the Italian Renaissance–very overrated!)

Barcino #2 – The city transforms into an Aryan Christian diocesan center, reflecting both the interfering influence of Constantine on his adoptive religion and the transformation of the Roman world in its conversion, showcasing the excavation of the Aryan cathedral and bishop’s residence.

So, students are armed with certain knowledge that I want them to access with this drill in a specific way–one that reflects historically thinking!

Leave a comment

Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

Local History in our Cities’ Museums

In the U.S., our cities have certain stories of their past to tell:

  1. Life before the European–the story, told mostly through archaeology and treaties, of the American Indian in a particular region
  2. Settlement–a story that often includes conflict, with the previous inhabitants, the landscape or both; sometimes this is a story of innovations, sometimes a story conquest and often it includes stories of tremendous will and perseverance; this is also told through archaeology and occasionally federal and legal documents–under more fortunate circumstances, it includes first person accounts
  3. Growth–a story that explains how a settlement of a few pioneers became a town and then a city; this is usually a story that builds through multiple phases: first as infrastructure improves and again as local industry develops; occasionally these stories include periods of economic and population regression–sometimes it is how they culminate
  4. Local industry–this story features the prominent (usually) men about town that created jobs and economic growth through commercial means and typically effected politics and society, such as Heinz in Pittsburgh, the race track in Saratoga or the ship yards in Baltimore
  5. Local events/catastrophes/individuals–these are uniques stories and major events unique to the region, from cataclysmic natural disasters to military battles to political show-downs or epic instances of courage; they provide much of the local color and show up in any phase along the way
  6. Prejudice and civil rights–these are stories that recognize the local region’s particular participation in our country’s greater history of having failed to live up to our own ideals, tempered with the stories of courage and risk in which those shortcomings were overcome–most of these stories appear in the past tense, often around slavery, Jim Crow or urban renewal, and with the sense that we have overcome those periods and issues
  7. Sports–these stories can also encompass a wide range of periods and are part of the local lore, trial and triumph; these often include a discussion of prejudice at some point, usually looking at the Negro Leagues or desegregation in sports and the impact on society

These cases are often the focus and model for local museums.  As with historical textbook authors and documentary directors, curators are often knowledgeable about either one particular facet of the museum’s exhibits or are specifically gifted in their field and happen to be at a history museum (as opposed to art, for example).  Thus, it is frequently the case that museums, as with textbooks and documentaries, do not always deal with the method behind the displayed knowledge, nor thus the disagreement that often exists regarding historical interpretations.  So, in the same sense there is often the perception of the provided information as being HISTORICAL FACT as opposed to an interpretation of evidence–often the result of hard research, I am sure–but not reflective of historical method, which is itself an end in one’s historical education.

So, the question arises: how do we use this as curious human beings and as educators?

For the curious:

Whenever we visit these museums, we have two options in our approach: we can simply take in and enjoy–a passive edutainment approach–or we can consider what is missing, what evidence is provided for the assertions, what implications arise, what other interpretations exist or other questions–an active thinking approach.  This is all really dependent on one’s own interests.  While visiting the Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh I was really intrigued by a small exhibit that acknowledged the various religious women orders that had been active in Pittsburgh despite a prevalent suspicion for foreign-born Catholics.  The exhibit explained that the nuns earned respect by providing health services for orphans and poor factory workers in the growing steel industry.  An example of each habit was provided and a brief blurb about the order, but little other information or evidence about their accomplishments and relationships in the city.  I was particularly interested because few of the orders had an education–mission which is the stereotypical role, today.

In the sense that the exhibit brought the subject to my awareness it was positive, but that I left with more questions than answers is an outcome for which the merits must be judged by each individual.

For the educator:

These same challenges can be turned into opportunities by educators.  In fact, tapping into the local industry or sports lore may be a really useful way to engage students in challenging concepts surrounding both historical method and content.  Relationships can be fostered between local institutions encouraging students to engage and research the content in the exhibits and learn more about how historians know what they claim to know.  There are, thus, many opportunities not only to engage students with the physical objects of the past, but to engage their attention to the construction of the content.  Local histories are often exhibited in a predominantly positive way, with the darker points of history usually (but not always) relegated to the more distant past, and this also creates opportunities to prompt thought about other perspectives and more balanced understandings of human past and human nature.  (Incidentally, I think it is often the threat of the darker side of history that makes the accompanying sports history that much more appealing and triumphant!  That is unless, of course, there is something inherently unavoidable about the loss, such as the Baltimore Colts packing up and leaving town, or the utter racism that left the Washington Redskins as the last team to desegregate.)

In short, there is opportunity in our local field trip availability that can trigger really useful active thinking–historical thinking, as Sam Wineburg would call it–that we can tap into as educators at all levels.

1 Comment

Filed under Experiences, Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Historian's Journal

Helping students read and write better

At the end of the semester it is worth reflecting on what has passed and what one would do differently.  Fall 2010 was less than smooth for me–some of it was very much in my control and other aspects were simply not.  (Friday, I will write about the glamorous life of the adjunct.)  One of the things I introduced this past semester were workshops associated with the midterm specifically intended to improve reading, writing and understanding of the historical method.

Studies have concluded that the social sciences and hard sciences are better mediums to teach reading because students have to grapple with the content.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, I have already created a bit of confusion in my design.  I refer to the first class of the week, or the first part of class depending on the weekly structure, as a “workshop” which is a carry-over from my Close Up days.  In this formula, a workshop is used to examine important concepts centered around questions pertaining to the subject.  At Close Up, these were questions about democratic governance; in my history classes, these are questions about historical method or challenges with those methods.  This is separate from the workshops I assigned this semester with the midterms which were intended to help improve students’ reading and writing skills.

In the case of the midterms, I assigned three questions that required two-page essay responses with two options for each question.  The first question asked the students to analyze an anonymous passage, to find the clues that would place the text in our course chronology and make an argument for their conclusions.  The second question asked students to make a historian’s argument dependent on four primary sources provided with the exam.  For both of these questions, the students were allowed to use any primary sources handed out in class and their textbook to supplement their answers and the provided material.  The final questions were based specifically on methodology: either they answered a how-to about specific a question we touched on during the first half of the semester or they made an argument about whether or not they believed there was such a thing as historical fact.

Notice that they are asked in each instance to make an argument and that in at least two of those instances these arguments are dependent on their ability to read and extrapolate the content for their argument.  While we have worked on these skills in class, this is the first time where I do not hold their hand through the process.  I graded the midterm with a firm hand and then assigned the Writer’s and Reader’s Workshop assignments when I handed back the midterms.  These were designed to force the students to revisit their work and improve upon it.  The major drawback with the system was the time it took for me to tailor assignments to each student and each student’s work.  Now that I have done it once, it would be easier for me to reproduce it a second time because of the experience granting me some anticipation for the sort of problems I can correct.  Once graded, the students earned back points on their midterm–in some cases, extra credit–but the workshops were also counted as separate assignments to insure that students took it seriously.  The earned back points made a big difference for many of students’ midterm grades; it is my hope that the workshops made a difference for their reading and writing.

For the Reading Workshops, I assigned tasks meant to get the students to reread the sources and find what they needed.  The amount of work varied depending on the quality or strength of the original submission.  For example:

Workshop assignment.

For the assignment, I want you to compile a list of quotes from the text that show it is a) from the Queen, b) English and c) Reformation-era.  This should be literally a list under the appropriate heading (i.e.: “From the Queen”) made with each quote getting a bullet point.

The intent was to go back and find the clues that they missed and or that they mis-attributed and correct their mistakes.  In each instance there are many clues that provide a direct link to the time period and the culture that produced the text.  In the above exercise, for example, there is little difficulty in going back and recognizing that the piece is English because of references to Parliament and to the decree that all prayers and preaching be done in English.  In the case of each answer, students had to demonstrate the skills they had learned as well as their acquired knowledge about the era in question.  With Queen Elizabeth’s edict, referred to in the above example, one had to be able to take the clues provided (the queen, the language of the Reformation, the reference to Parliament, etc.) and recognize it as a document from the English Reformation during Elizabeth’s reign.  So, it is not as though they are only being tested on historical method.  They are demonstrating their knowledge through their use of the methodology that we have also addressed in coursework.

In the second question, the texts were meant to work in harmony and provide evidence for a larger case.  So, reading the texts as being in dialogue with each other was essential.  In most cases, the students simply did not deal with each of the provided sources which often produced a one-sided perspective.  For example, one option asked students to evaluate the changes in English culture as a result of the Industrial Revolution, but many ignored the document provided by the manufacturers who owned the factories with the new machines and limited their focus to either child labor (from primary sources referenced in class) or hand-workers who had lost their profession to the cheaper machines.  So, in this instance I needed students do grapple with the content of each provided source as with the following assignment:

Workshop Assignment.

Being sure to cite the sources as you use them—even where you don’t directly quote, but nonetheless paraphrase—write four paragraphs that follow the provided outline.  This is in essence the body of the essay without an introduction or a conclusion, but also tightly focused on the provided sources.

I.  First piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the William Radcliffe text, what type of document he writes and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what it was like before the development of the textile machines
  3. Point #2 about what it was like after the development of the textile machines

II.  Second piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Leeds Woolen Workers Petition, 1786 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about why the workers say they have written the document
  3. Point #2 about what they say about the impact of textile machines on their lives and livelihoods

III.  Third piece of evidence

  1. Introduce Letter from Leeds Cloth Merchants, 1791 and what type of document it is
  2. Point #1 about what the merchants say has changed (you can note that they have a different take than the authors of the petition above)
  3. Point #2 about what change the merchants propose to enable in the future

IV.  Fourth piece of evidence

  1. Introduce the final text, “Observations”, what type of document it is and when it is written
  2. Point #1 about what change the author observes (first point)
  3. Point #2 about what change the author observes (second point)

(Note: Roman numeral = a paragraph; number = 1-3 sentences.)

In this example, the point was to ask the students to provide evidence from each source–not necessarily to change their conclusion.  In some cases, this meant simply rereading the sources with the benefit of my notes on their exams.  The outline is set up so that they now know what each source is supposed to provide them, even if they could not figure it out when they read through the texts on their own the first go ’round.

For the Writer’s Workshop, I was often asking students to address organization or their argument’s structure.  Sometimes this meant refining the above structure to include an introduction and conclusion.  Often, students skip introductions and conclusions to simply “answer the questions” without realizing how an introduction and conclusion benefits the clarity of their answers.  In some cases, students provided good information, but understanding it required extra work because there was no logical order to their answer.  This was also when they frequently would contradict themselves.  So, in some cases the assignment was to produce a refined outline of their content and to make sure they were really answering the question as in the following sample:

Workshop Assignment:

Write an outline for a new essay answering the question showing steps a historian would take to answer one of the provided questions.  Consider the things you have been asked to do previously in the exam and review the material from our first week if classes to help you think about what it is a historian does and how one uses the historical method to answer questions about the past.

The outline should show consideration for the following points:

  • What types of sources are available for the era and the people involved?
  • What are the limitations of these sources?
  • How can answers be found with the sources we have?
  • How does the historian make an argument to answer this question [you selected]?

Getting students to approach the material in a more organized way helped them to better understand their own arguments and the material in general.  In the best-case scenario they make new connections that they had not realized before–in other words, the exam itself is a learning tool.  In assessing the success of the workshops, I am inclined to be optimistic.  While some students were still not able to make some of the connections I hoped, their was improvement in every instance.  For some students, the improvement was significant (indicating either that they better understood on the second attempt or that they put more time and effort into the second attempt).

The Readers' and Writers' Workshops helped bump up Midterm grades--but they had to work for it!

For the final, I assigned less work, dropped the third question regarding methodology and asked them to answer more guided questions for the first anonymous passage.  It was also worth more than the midterm to hopefully reward them for having taken some risks in the first attempt and to have refined their approach by the second attempt.  In order to make use of this method in the future, I need to plan it out better so it is not such a time-consuming process on my end, otherwise it is not worth it for the students.  Still, once I saw the results it was hard to argue against doing it.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning

The Civil War: New Perspectives on Old Things–How History Evolves

I spent Saturday (11/20/2010) at the National Archives, in Washington DC, for a day long symposium on the Civil War, entitled, “The Civil War, Fresh Perspectives”.  Instead of scholars presenting papers, the day’s program consisted of a keynote address by the current president from the University of Richmond and three panels of five scholars each, including a moderator, on the following topics: “The Home Front”, “A Global War: International Implications” and “The Nation Before and After”.

The Civil War: Fresh Perspectives Symposium

Bill Ayers, currently president of the University of Richmond, gave the keynote address.  In it, he explained the challenge of finding something new to discuss when the Civil War has been regarded daily for the last 150 years.  The concept behind this symposium is integral to history and one which is lost on the non-academic public.  People tend to think that what happened happened, that history is a body of historical facts and that these facts do not change because they are in the past just as they took place and all we have to do is memorize them, forget them or be bored by them.  In reality, though, our understanding of the past is hardly stagnant, nor do historians speak of “historical fact” nearly so often as people think.  Nor, for that matter, do historians agree nearly so often as people might think, and it was both the topic and the format that made the conference so interesting.

I teach my history classes at The Community College of Baltimore County with each unit accompanied by a question.  This question is paired with the unit’s material and the material helps to demonstrate the point.  Two questions that I pose are 1) “how do historians’ perspectives change regarding historical content?”; 2) “how do current events effect historical interpretation?”.  Both are intended to challenge the notion that history simply is, that it merely reports on the past and that once established it is unchangeable.  At the symposium on Saturday, Ayers opened by telling the audience that the method for achieving fresh perspectives does not necessarily require new documents and information, sometimes it is reconsidering the sources we have in new ways.  Ayers used the example of the word “loyalty”, which is ubiquitous in Civil War discussion.  When the primary sources use “loyalty” what do they mean?  Slave owners talk of their shock at the betrayal of seemingly “loyal” slaves.  Men talk about “loyalty” to their homeland and mean different things.  On both sides of the war “loyalty” justifies one’s position and one’s appeals, but again it’s definitions vary widely.  Often we must reconsider the sources we have.

Historians cannot help but be influenced by the events they live through and often these current events cause scholars to reread and reevaluate the sources that have been referenced for years.  No where is this more evident than in Cold War years and the 1960s.  The USSR-influenced academic papers were required to follow prescribed programs and were often rife with attempts to get “real history” out in code, between the state lines.  While in the West, history was written in response to the threat of nuclear annihilation and the fear of mutual destruction or Cold War government policies.  As the era changes, so do the perspectives.  I always ask the question about current events effecting historians in my Byzantine/Islam class of the same 101 course.

The other really refreshing outcome from the panels at the symposium is the obvious factor that not all historians agree.  While disagreements were not the dominant feature of the discussions, they were present though amiable.  Debate and conversation built off each scholar’s points, contributing and building nicely, expanding each subject for the audience.  It is important to respect that the field of history is a large body of contributing historiography, not one person’s (or textbook’s) point of view and represents historical knowledge as a whole from many angles and research projects.

So, one source is never enough for either the historian researching sources or the reader learning history.  Any self-respecting scholar would be the first to tell you so!

Leave a comment

Filed under Historian's Journal, Lectures

Come visit Saratoga Springs, NY!!

In memory of Patricia “Patty” Mary Elizabeth Joyce Reeves, a member of the Wilton Historical Society. (September 21, 1932 – October 12, 2010)

I was recently in Saratoga Springs for a funeral and thought it would be fitting to talk about the city in today’s post in memory of “Grandma Pat.”  Grandma Pat (technically my grandmother-in-law) was one of the first people to comment on my posts and was herself a history buff, so this is, I believe, an appropriate tribute.

Many folks know about the revolutionary era battle for Saratoga Springs–it is well documented, so I am not going to spend time on it in this post.  Instead, I am going to break this post into three parts based on 1) the Canfield Casino in Congress Park–now the sight of the Saratoga Springs History Museum, 2) a travel article reprinted from the New England Magazine, in 1905, “Saratoga Springs,” and 3)  the narrative history found in The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900.

Saratoga Springs History Museum, Canfield Casino in Congress Park


Canfield Casino in Congress Park, Saratoga Springs, NY


The Saratoga Springs History Museum is in Congress Park, housed inside the old Canfield Casino.  Originally one of the main attractions to the city, along with the horses and the springs, the casino does double duty for the city, today, as the main hall is rented out for occasions such as weddings.  In its heyday it was a popular site for the high-rollers from New York city who regularly dropped six figures like it was pocket change, according to the docents.  Today, visitors can pay $5 to see the exhibits, which include a small sampling of pre-Columbian archaeological finds and a wide smattering of other artifacts from the colonial era through to the early mid-1900s.  On the second floor there are really three exhibits.  The first is a collection of women’s fashion over the last two hundred years, “Two Hundred Years of Fashion Exhibit.”  (Full disclosure: I brushed through that section pretty quickly… but if you are into fashion and textile history it’s probably pretty cool.)  The second exhibit is the only one focusing on the building’s past specifically, the “High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room,” which includes an original bar from that age (interesting side note: women weren’t allowed to gamble and so were provided a reading room).  Finally, there is an exhibit focusing on the small town’s extensive history of fires: “Historic Fires in Saratoga Springs Exhibit.”  The third floor, featuring “The Walworth Mansion–six rooms from the 1880s,” covers a rather wide array of American social history, running from the Civil War through to the Spanish American War, through the eyes of one family with ties to Kentucky, Washington DC and, obviously, Saratoga Springs.


High Rollers: The High Stakes Gambling Room at the Saratoga Springs History Museum


As a casino, Canfield was a successful casino in the resort area of Saratoga Springs.  It ran, successfully hosting JP Morgan, the Vanderbilts and Whitneys and their like, until 1907, when reformers successfully banned gambling in the city.  At this point, the docent explained, the gambling moved out to the lake, having been taken over by the criminal element that ran it in speakeasies.  The town had always attracted, as one Saratogan described it, a frivolous interest.


Parlor of the Walworth family mansion from the 1880s, Saratoga Springs History Museum


The Walworth mansion exhibit is a curious one.  As visitors walk into the doorway of the rooms an audio narrative comes on telling the family story the perspectives of different individuals in the family.  As far as that goes, I think it is a great way to introduce young people to history and the different perspectives that come down to us, though they are a little long and are rehashing the same general story–this may tax a young person’s patience.  The family deals with Civil War loyalties, domestic abuse, religious conversion in a Presbyterian corner of the world , women’s suffrage and the ill effects of the Spanish-American War.  The exhibit is supposedly based on seven rooms from the old mansion that was torn down almost one hundred years after these rooms were lived in–they are billed as coming from the 1880s–but, sadly the exhibit does not describe the methods of preservation and research to explain or make the case for how authentic this reconstruction actually is.  Nor, do they explain how they came to create the personal narratives recorded by actors–what sources they used, how they chose the individuals featured, etc.  Actually, this would in general be my complaint about the museum: not enough literature and explanation.

Apparently some odd things have happened up there on the third floor and the Ghost Hunters, from the SciFy channel, visited a while back.  The Casino was featured on episode 18 of season 6.  The episode includes another haunted site, so if you want to watch the portion relevant to Saratoga Springs, you’ll want to wade half way through it.  (This has apparently increased the number of visits to the museum.)  In the introduction to the feature, they explain some of the history of the building . . . as for ghosts?  I am not qualified to comment on anything in that area, but I did not notice anything on my visit!  (The episode is available in 5 parts on YouTube.)

“Saratoga Springs” by Louis McHenry Howe, New England Magazine, 1905

It was to Saratoga in those long-forgotten, prehistoric springtimes, when the Hudson tore apart its ice fetters and thrust them down into the sea, that the bravest and the feeblest alike of the haughty Iroquois tribe, abandoning their winter tepees, made their way over trails so firmly trodden down that the visitor to-day may trace them, sometimes for miles through the forests surrounding Saratoga.

It is by means of this introduction that Howe launches into the history surrounding the popular vacation and resort area.  Notice too, that it is published while the casino is still open for business.  The publication, The New England Magazine, was published in Boston as a continuation from the Bay State Magazine and appears to have run from 1886 to 1917 (although, I have not verified that).  My copy is a reprint of an original found in the collection of Minnie Clark Bolster and sold at the Saratoga Springs History Museum.  The article is a travel feature and tells us itself why the reader should be interested in Saratoga Springs:

What, it may well be asked, has been the magnet that has drawn man to this spot since earliest time?  The proud Iroquois, treading with light moccasin the forest trail, would have answered: “Game! for so many stately bucks and sleek-sided does, fierce wolves and fiercer panthers, never elsewhere did Indian see.”

“Society,” would have been the reply of the famous beauty, Betty Holcomb, travelling to the Spa by easy stage coach, from far Virginia, crowds assembling at each post station to catch a glimpse of her lovely face.

“The finest racing in the world,” would answer the gentlemen sportsman of to-day, learning luxuriously back in his private car as it tears across the miles that lie between Wall Street and the Saratoga Race Track.  All of these answers would have been right so far as they went, but the root of the matter would not be there, for the last analysis of Saratoga’s greatness will show that the foundations of her fame lie in her wonderful mineral springs.

The description of the town in this extended essay is one true to its time that describes what New England and New York society valued and of what popular knowledge consisted.  A geological explanation follows to explain the existence of the “wonderful mineral springs.”  Still, the majority of the essay is centered around the horse races, clearly the primary feature in the town’s popularity according to Howe.  There is surprisingly little about the Revolutionary War battle that took place there and shares its name with the small city.

As a primary source, this is valuable in the access it provides to the lifestyles of the wealthy.  While there is a great deal of discussion involving the local tribes, much of it inaccurate or misconstrued and virtually all of it romantic, there is no mention of the lives of anybody outside the wealthy class.  This is probably suggestive of the magazine’s readership, but that could be misleading.  Certainly, the accompanying photographs in the article focus on the estates and diversions of the wealthy–the publication does not provide credits for these photographs, so I take them to have come from the article, but it is possible that they have been provided for the modern reprint from Saratoga Springs archives.

The Saratoga Reader, Writing about an American village, 1749-1900 by Field Horne

This is an interesting collection of personal narrative descriptions of the history of Saratoga Springs.  It is in some respects a charming and pleasant read, in others a potentially useful collection for the high school and undergraduate researcher.  For a more serious researcher it supplies a useful trail to open inquiries into Saratoga, colonial, revolutionary, Civil War, New York and New England life.  The editor, Field Horne, admits to selectively excerpting and compiling this collection with a bias towards personal narrative accounts (as opposed to travel guide descriptions, for example) and sources that highlight American life in this part of the country.  Based on this, I would suggest that correspondence with the author could very well provide a rather extensive, larger collection that did not make the cut, but may prove useful for various historical inquiries.  It provides a bibliography, index and glossary that are well done and very helpful.  The way the book is laid out it is rather like a film of Saratoga’s history, with each scene a brief snapshot from one individual’s perspective.

What a historian or instructor will not find in this collection are sources in dialogue with each other, or even really multiple perspectives on similar subjects (with the exception of the springs themselves).  Each source is in isolation.  So, to return to my movie metaphor above, imagine a film where each scene is in isolation and the individual’s perspective is only accounted for in his/her particular scene–even if the individual may be relevant in the next scene, the audience is now cut off from that perspective.  The secondary source material providing some biographical information for each of the authors is also without citations.

While obviously each individual whose works contributed to this collection was literate, there is still a fairly wide swatch of American society represented even if not the widest economic representation.  The author was particular in his transcription of these sources , so their written accounts are not polished by the author and their voices are their own.  Many links to American life in general are drawn through his selections, in particular the local connections to greater American questions and politics, whether this is the written material from international observers moving through the area after the French and Indian War, young abolitionists or business men writing in their journals about presidential debates.  This is largely the story of American leisure, primarily that of the wealthy who would make their sojourns either with intent to Saratoga Springs or as side trips from the larger cities in the region.

* * *

This is the sort of place I really enjoy visiting.  It is a place that has made the conscious decision to preserve its past and incorporate that past into its modern city-life.  Also, it is pedestrian friendly which allows for leisurely exploration of its local businesses and history.  In the fall, it was shockingly beautiful with all of its trees cycling through their autumn attire and we were lucky to be strolling through the city during gorgeous weather.  For history buffs and folks interested in historic preservation it is a great place to visit.  I look forward to returning under happier circumstances.


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning, Travel

Primary sources and getting some context

In its most basic sense, this is what history is: the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us.  In writing these stories, however, historians do not discover a past as much as they create it; they choose the events and people that they think constitute the past, and they decide what about them they need to know. . .

The above quote is excerpted from the book, From Reliable Sources, An introduction to historical methods, part of a slightly longer quote I use on the very first day of each class—right after a slide that eads: “What is history?”  Last night in my opening class of a once-a-week Thursday night-er (Western Civ. 101) I received a certain amount of concern and doubt from my students:

“Well, he seems to be saying— well, ‘the stories we tell about our prior selves or that others tell about us’— that is, I hope it means historical fact.”

“It’s kind of disturbing that they say ‘stories.'”

To their consternation, I wrote the following up on the board: PAST ≠ HISTORY!

The second slide they read was a little longer than the sentence below, but it ended with the following:

Seen from this point of view, the historian’s basic task is to choose reliable sources, to read them reliably, and to put them together in ways that provide reliable narratives about the past.

While interpretations of past events differ, the historian seeks to gain the most accurate account of the past that he/she can, I explained.  To do this the historian must seek reliable sources.  Borrowing from some of the back-to-school ideas posted at the end of this summer, I asked the students what they would choose to include if I asked them to tell me about their day.  At various points they would leave things out as irrelevant and this prioritization is something that historians do, too, when constructing their narratives of the past.  It is at this point that I introduce the concept of the historian functioning like a detective and a prosecutor in his/her research (detective investigation) and written argument (prosecutor’s court case) based on found evidence.  Roughly, the next thing I did with my students this semester was introduce documents that students had brought in and were, through scanning and magic marker application, rendered anonymous.  Having divided the class into small groups, each group got its own set of documents and was tasked with trying to establish 1) what they knew about the individual from the documents (and why?) and 2) what could they infer about the individual from the documents (and why?).  This week was the first time I had attempted this and below I want to share some of the results.

The assignment, given to my Monday/Wednesday/Friday class, required each student to bring in three documents due on the first Wednesday.  They understood that these would be read by their classmates and that they should not bring in anything inappropriate, i.e. anything referencing sexual behavior, illegal activity or other inappropriate behavior.  (The students were good about this, although, one student did bring in a summons to court for driving 80-something in a 50 mph zone and a ticket from the NJ turnpike authority for not having any money to pay the toll, both of which prompted the group to infer that the individual was male because, and I paraphrase: males are more frequently guilty of aggressive driving and not going through the proper planning to show up at a toll with the necessary funds!)  Because the  class brought them in on a Wednesday, I could select some for use in both my Thursday night class and my Tuesday/Thursday class.

On the xeroxed copies of the card, pictured above, the recipient’s name was blacked out.  With this card also came a 21st birthday card from “Grandmom” and a lifeguard training and first aid card from the American Red Cross, Central Maryland Chapter, completed May 23, 2008.    This individual’s documents were used in all three classes with some interesting results.  First of all, students were told that all the cards and non-electronic correspondence were received by the individuals—not written by them.  While I made this clear, students seemed to have a difficult time recalling that fact when they read the card shown here and seemed determined (all three groups!) to infer that he was female.  Part of this was also due to the birthday card from his grandmother which students decided looked like a card one would pick out for a girl, not a boy.

Aside from the gender confusion, however, there were some perceptive conclusions and inferences made.  For example, one group had a lifeguard in it and (correctly) assessed that he was probably also CPR-certified if he was still a lifeguard.  And, furthermore, he had probably earned it recently, because while the lifeguard certification was already two years old, it was good for three years, and a CPR certification is only good for one year.  As the date was in May, most groups reasoned it was probably for a summer job, in particular, though there were likely other opportunities for using it.  I pointed out that one person’s knowledge about lifeguarding provided more context which enabled the group to make inferences based on his familiarity and experiences leading them to reason more, even if they could not state more facts.  (I also pointed out that working together expanded their ability to evaluate the material.)  Finally, looking at the card shown above, the groups were able to correctly surmise that he was in his first semester at Mount St. Mary’s college when he received the card, based on the opening reference to “the Mount” leading into a description of freshman life in college.

Another student brought in a letter about his father’s death (for heavy reading), a tag from the hospital in conjunction with a birth (1987) and the shown postcard.  While the postcard is from Turkey, the stamp on the back was an Italian stamp, which led one student to infer that the sender was in the Navy (as it turns out the sender was the individual’s father and he was a merchant marine).  In another class we talked about this student’s choices in his documents that led the group to infer that his father’s absence was a defining aspect in his life.

One student brought in a picture, a Chanukah card from “Grandma & Poppop” and a Placement/Academic Planning form for our college.  From the card all groups (correctly) identified that the student was Jewish.  From the placement form they were confident that student was strong in English and that it was not his second language as the there was no ESOL placement requirements filled in.  (Although, the former point prompted some interesting conversations about whether test scores were evidence of a fact or an inference, most groups settling on fact in the end.)   Also, the groups inferred that the student was currently taking classes at the college as the form had been filled out the previous fall (2009).

One group, knowing that students 25+ years are not required to show previous college experience or SAT/ACT scores, inferred that the student must be twenty-five or older because these boxes were left blank, which, while not actually the case, was nonetheless well-reasoned.  In fact, I used that as an opportunity to demonstrate  how a perfectly well-reasoned inference can still be wrong.  This further showed students how a historian’s conclusions can be based on perfectly reasonable interpretations of available sources and still be off the mark.  Again: past ≠ history, or maybe: past ≈ history.

In general, I was really pleased with this activity.  Students were free to take risks in their attempts to interpret the information they had available without worrying about losing points for mistakes.  Also, even though I used the documents from one class with student-groups from all three classes, as students tapped into their own knowledge banks the enterprise facilitated students getting to know each other better in their small groups which are now set for the whole semester.

In the past, I have noticed students struggle to look at a document and find clues.  The hope in doing this activity with students’ documents was twofold:

In the first place, it allowed me to show how many more documents we have today even though the electronic medium may make it more difficult to access documents for future historians.

Secondly, and more importantly, it gave them practice looking for evidence in documents with known or more familiar contexts.

We concluded with a discussion about what Sam Wineburg has to say about engaging with the unfamiliar:

To realize history’s humanizing qualities fully, to draw on history’s ability to, in the words of Carl Degler, “expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human,” we need to encounter the distant past—a past less distant from us in time than in its modes of thought and social organization.  It is this past, one that initially leaves us befuddled or, worse, just plain bored, that we need most if we are to achieve the understanding that each of us is more than the handful of labels ascribed to us at birth.  The sustained encounter with this less-familiar past teaches us the limitations of our brief sojourn on the planet and allows us to take membership in the entire human race.  Paradoxically, the relevance of the past may lie precisely in what strikes us as its initial irrelevance.

I expressed that this concept of humanizing us is an important goal for all of us this semester.

I would really appreciate comments and questions, so fire away!

Decorative relief from the Basilica of St. John, Ephesus, Turkey


Filed under Experiencing History - Project Based Learning