The Primary Problem with Primary Sources

One thing I’ve introduced to my teaching of history is the use of primary sources, texts mostly, in bringing a time period to life. I’ve found the Code of Hammurabi to be quite popular (despite it being a bore when they read it the first time) and various letters and speeches around 1500 to 1800 (the “Age of Imperialism”) to be the most interesting ones.

The Internet History Sourcebooks Project is an online collection of primary sources essential to history and literature teachers. There are a lot more scattered throughout the web. Another favorite is the entire Muqaddimah published online here.

I’ll just have to warn other educators that using primary sources can be tricky. They were written in another time and thus follow different conventions. On the surface is the language itself. Most texts have been translated and so something has already been lost by virtue of that. Yet even the best translations fall prey to the language structure followed at the time, and this can be incredibly jarring for high school students. Even I struggle with the English translations of The Upanishads and The Tale of Genji.

But even deeper than language is the culture itself. No other conventions can diverge their time from ours than norms, habits and beliefs. This is unavoidable of course. We will always read their text from our point of view, thus making it inevitable for us to miss what’s there and or see other things entirely. Therefore, what makes history a discipline is being able to distance ourselves from our own time and immersing ourselves in theirs. This is more difficult than it seems; hence the discipline.

Therefore, the simplest advice I can give teachers (and students as well) is to always establish context. We will never get that context one hundred percent (chances are we will be relying on sources that have their own bias) but we can get pretty close. At the least, establish the unique characteristics of their era and how they contrast with ours. On the other hand, one can also focus on similarities.

One central insight of historiography (the study of how history is written) is that while all sources are biased, not all of them are unreliable. True, some will be more reliable than others but we completely miss the point when we say that a text is unreliable just because they espouse a certain world view. For the historiographer, the question becomes, “Why do they see the world that way?” And from there it becomes a study of how history was written with that view in mind, how we can distance ourselves from that view, and what history we can derive from that source. That final question will ultimately decide the reliability of a material.

This may all sound tedious, but Ibn Khaldun, the father of historiography, suggests no less. In the foreword to The Muqaddimah, he wrote,

HISTORY is a discipline widely cultivated among nations and races. It is eagerly sought after. The men in the street, the ordinary people, aspire to know it. Kings and leaders vie for it.

Both the learned and the ignorant are able to understand it. For on the surface history is no more than information about political events, dynasties, and occurrences of the remote past, elegantly presented and spiced with proverbs. It serves to entertain large, crowded gatherings and brings to us an understanding of human affairs. (It shows) how changing conditions affected (human affairs), how certain dynasties came to occupy an ever wider space in the world, and how they settled the earth until they heard the call and their time was up.

The inner meaning of history, on the other hand, involves speculation and an attempt to get at the truth, subtle explanation of the causes and origins of existing things, and deep knowledge of the how and why of events. (History,) therefore, is firmly rooted in philosophy. It deserves to be accounted a branch of (philosophy).

Always remember the importance of context and that we tend to lose track of what history is saying because of all the other words we choose to say. What we represent is what we get, and the past deserves so much more than that.


2 thoughts on “The Primary Problem with Primary Sources

  1. Hi, Martin,

    Very interesting post about contexts of history, language, and culture.

    Context can also be seen as “subjectivity.” An individual’s understanding [learning; comprehension; decision-making; bases for actions; mind-formation] is about one’s context, or a context that is desired. This is semantics.

    Educators [mentors] can put meaning to individuals’ contexts by finding a “truth” that fits current situations.

    Your posts are engaging. You are one fine student…an attribute that makes a mentor great.

    — Albert

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s