Letters to the Editor

Primarily Speaking...

Roger Horowitz, October 1991

I read with pleasure John Anthony Scott's article, "There Is Another Way," (Perspectives, May/June 1991, Teaching Innovations). Over fifteen years ago I was introduced to Dr. Scott's exciting teaching techniques as a student at the Ethical Culture Society's Fieldston High School. I vividly recall his superb course on the American Revolution, and credit that experience with turning me toward a career in history.

My admittedly brief experience teaching college-level survey classes supports Dr. Scott's general approach. Nothing does more to interest the non-history major, dutifully fulfilling a distributional requirement, than the use of primary sources which brings history to life, and makes real people the source of information and knowledge.

While I agree with Gary B. Nash that textbooks play an important role, students first need to be motivated to study history and to complete their assignments—and the textbook, far too often, stifles that essential first step. A letter, song, testimonial, or memoir from a contemporary figure far more effectively conveys the flavor and fervor of the past than the dry distilled prose of texts commonly assigned in high school and college courses.

Certainly, textbooks are better than in the past, and some do a fine job linking the new social history with older traditions of political narrative. As a basic source, and as a way to provide continuity, textbooks prove very helpful in introductory courses.

Yet, relying on the text as the main fount of wisdom, the basis for examinations and the final grade, marginalizes the far more exciting primary sources which constitutes the real meat of history. I believe a history course will make a far more lasting impression on a student by emphasizing primary documents rather than a textbook.

Training students to appreciate and to interpret documents, and to place them in a historical context and understand the ideas, aspirations, and emotions which these sources express, seems the most valuable contributions we can make in the ahistorical age we live in. Dates are easily forgotton a few months after the final; but the aspirations of the "lower sort" during the American Revolution, the anguish and anger of the slave, or the recollections of ordinary working people about the Great Depression, leave a far deeper impression, one more likely to last past the end of high school or college.

Roger Horowitz, Assistant Professor
History Department, University of Delaware