Published Date

January 1, 1898

From The Study of History in Schools (1898)

The use of sources in secondary work is now a matter of so much importance that it seems to demand special and distinct treatment. We believe in the proper use of sources for proper pupils, with proper guarantees that there shall also be secured a clear outline view of the whole subject studied; but we find ourselves unable to approve a method of teaching, sometimes called the “source method,” in which pupils have in their hands little more than a series of extracts, for the most part brief, and not very closely related. The difficulty with this system is, that while it suggests the basis of original record upon which all history rests, on the other hand it expects valuable generalizations from insufficient bases. Within the covers of one book it is impossible to bring together one hundredth part of the material which any careful historical writer would examine for himself before coming to a conclusion; and it is not to be expected that inexperienced and immature minds can form correct notions without some systematic survey of the field. Indeed, the attempts to teach history wholly from the sources ignore the fact that the actual knowledge of the facts of history in the minds of the most highly trained teachers of history comes largely from secondary books; it is only in limited fields where a large mass of material can be examined and sifted, that historians and teachers can safely rely for their information entirely on sources, and even there they find it useful to refer to the secondary work of other writers for new points of view.

The first essential, then, for any practical use of sources by pupils is that their work shall be done in connection with a good text-book, in which the sequence and relation of events can be made clear. The aim of historical study in the secondary school, let it be repeated, is the training of pupils, not so much in the art of historical investigation as in that of thinking historically. Pupils should be led to grasp facts and to see them in relations, for one who has been taught to establish certain facts with unerring accuracy may still be unable to understand the historical significance of those facts.

In the second place, we disclaim any confidence in “investigation” by pupils, if by investigation is meant a mental process of the same order as that of the practiced historian and the special student of a limited field, or of the teacher preparing material for his classes. In our judgment sources are not intended to be either the sole or the principal materials for school study. There is, indeed, a close analogy between the proposed processes of historical study and those of the study of natural science. In physics, for example, it has been thought expedient to require a well-ordered text-book in connection with a series of experiments; yet physics cannot be efficiently taught unless the pupil has some contact with materials, not because they form the only foundation of his knowledge, but because he learns to look for himself, and to understand that the knowledge which he receives at second-hand must be based upon patient investigation by somebody else.

By the study of properly selected materials the pupil realizes that historical characters were living persons, and he learns to distinguish between them and the x and y of algebra or the formulas of physics. When one reads the loving letter written from before Antioch by Count Stephen of Blois some eight hundred years ago,13 in which he charges his wife to do right and to remember her duty to her children and her vassals, one realizes that the Crusaders were real men, imbued with many of the purposes, hopes, and sentiments with which men of the present day are moved and influenced.

The use of sources which we advocate is, therefore, a limited contact with a limited body of materials, an examination of which may show the child the nature of the historical process, and at the same time may make the people and events of bygone times more real to him. We believe that some acquaintance with sources vitalizes the subject, and thus makes it easier for the teacher and more stimulating for the pupil. But all sources are not of equal value for this purpose; some of those which are very important for more mature students are too dry and unattractive to be useful for younger persons. John Adams’s “Discourses of Davila” is a source, though thought exceedingly dull even in his generation. Abigail Adams’s letters to her husband, complaining of the fall of continental currency, are equally valuable as sources, and much more interesting.

Since discrimination in the selection of sources is of so much importance, the first criterion is that authorities be chosen whose authenticity is beyond dispute. It is not worth while to introduce children to the controversies over the voyages of John and Sebastian Cabot; or to the arguments for and against the truthfulness of John Smith’s account of his rescue by Pocahontas; or to the authorship of the letters found in the saddlebags of Charles I. There is no difficulty in obtaining an abundance of suggestive sources, about the value of which historians will agree and around which no interminable controversy is waging. Pains should also be taken to recommend the sources that may reasonably be brought within the knowledge of pupils; it is of no use to refer to rarities or to texts long out of print.

In the next place, few documents, in the usual significance of that term, are very useful in the schoolroom. A capitulary of Charlemagne, Magna Charta, a colonial charter, or the Constitution of the United States may with careful explanation be made clear, but it is difficult to make them attractive. The growth of a nation, the enlargement of its political ideas, may be measurable by young intellects, but not the registration of that growth in great political documents. And yet even documents may be occasionally used. There seems to be no good reason for merely reading about the Declaration of Independence without seeing the printed instrument itself, or talking about the Ordinance of 1787 or the Proclamation of Emancipation without knowledge of the texts.

There is, however, a large body of material of another kind which is as trustworthy as constitutional documents and is much more attractive. Such are books of travels, which from Herodotus down to James Bryce have been one of the most entertaining and suggestive sources on the social and intellectual phenomena of history. Of equal interest, and perhaps of greater value, are the actual journals and letters of persons contemporary with the events which they describe. Such are Cicero’s Epistles, Luther’s Letters, Pepys’ Diary, Bradford’s History, and the more intimate writings of statesmen like Henry VIII of England and Henry IV of France, Frederick the Great, Franklin, Washington, and Gladstone. These are unfailing sources of historical information, and they give in addition a personal and human interest to the subjects which they illustrate.

In dealing with young minds which are rapidly opening, it is of special importance to choose books or extracts which have a literary value. The annals of the race are founded on first-hand accounts of historical events, many of which are written in such a fashion as to be worth reading aside from their historical value. Such are, for example, Einhard’s Life of Charlemagne; the naive accounts of the foundation of the Swiss Republic in 1292; the journals of the early voyagers to the Western world; the table talk of Bismarck; the farewell letters of John Brown; and the memoranda of Lincoln’s few brief speeches. Such material used in schools gives part of the training and enjoyment to be had from good literature, and at the same time furnishes illustrations that make the text-book of history sparkle with human life.

In connection with topical work, the pupils may with special advantage make use of the sources. To the child such work is as fresh as though it had never been undertaken by any other mind. In comparing the statements of various sources and arriving at a conclusion from taking them together, the pupil gets a valuable training of judgment. He must not suppose that he is making a history, or that his results are comparable with those of the trained historian; but he may have an intellectual enjoyment of the same kind as that of the historical writer. The committee is fully aware of the difficulty of carrying on such methods as are here suggested; they require advantageous circumstances and material which is easily handled and with which the teacher has decided familiarity. As has been pointed out above, written work must not be the only or even the principal employment of the pupil, but in the preparation of written topics much may be gained by dealing with sources, if a sufficient variety is available. Wherever written work is required, therefore, it is desirable to have some sources, to be used not merely for help in writing but for reference. In this way the pupil may get an idea of the difficulties of ascertaining historical truth, and of the necessity for impartiality and accuracy.

Besides the sources which have come down to us in written form and are reproduced upon the printed page, there is another important class of historical materials which is of great assistance in giving reality to the past-namely, actual concrete remains, such as exist in the form of old buildings, monuments, and the contents of museums. Many schools have direct access to interesting survivals of this sort, while the various processes of pictorial reproduction have placed abundant stores of such material within reach of every teacher. The excellent illustrations of many recent text-books may be supplemented by special albums, such as are used in French and German schools, and by the school’s own collections of engravings and photographs cut from magazines or procured from dealers.14 Some schools have also provided sets of lantern slides. Of course, in order to entitle such illustrations to serious use and to the rank of historical sources they must be real pictures-actual reproductions of buildings, statues, contemporary portraits, views of places, etc.-and not inventions of modern artists. It is easy to make too much of illustrations and thus reduce history to a series of dissolving views; but many excellent teachers have found the judicious use of pictures helpful in the extreme, not merely in arousing interest in the picturesque aspects of the subject, but in cultivating the historical imagination and in giving definiteness and vividness to the pupil’s general ideas of the past. An appeal to the eye is of great assistance in bringing out the characteristic differences between past and present, and thus in checking that tendency to project the present into the past which is one of the most serious obstacles to sound views of history. The chief danger in the use of pictorial material lies in giving too much of it instead of dwelling at length on a few carefully chosen examples.

To sum up this part of the subject, the committee looks upon sources as adjuncts to good textbook work, as something which may be used for a part of the collateral reading and may also form the basis of some of the written work. Such use of material, with proper discrimination in choosing the sources, will add to the pleasure of the pupil, and will by sharpness of outline fix in his mind events and personalities that will slip away if he uses the text-books alone.

Next section: Intensive Study

  1. Translated in Letters of the Crusaders (University of Pennsylvania Translations and Reprints), I, 4. []
  2. Selections from the Perry prints, and the cheap series of photographic reproductions issued by various American houses, are always available at a very moderate price, and have found a place in many schools. Good types of inexpensive foreign albums are Seemann’s Kunsthistorische Bilderbogen and the Albums Historiques of Parmentier (Paris, Hachette). Holzel in Vienna publishes Langl’s Bilder zur Geschichte, a set of sixty-two wall pictures of the great structures of all ages. []