|Source: One Use of Sources in the Teaching of History, Professor Fred Morrow Fling, The Social Studies, September/October 1994, pp. 206-210. Reprinted with permission of The Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation. Published by Heldref Publications, 1319 18th St. NW, Washington, D.C. 20036-1802. Copyright 1994. Subscriptions: 1-800-365-9753.|
One Use of Sources in the Teaching of History
Professor FRED MORROW FLING, of the University of Nebraska
The Social Studies, September/October 1994, pp 206-210
[An article Reprinted from Volume 1]
Method the Object Sought
The Historical Method
The Historian's Work
Equipment for Source Work
Sources in the Classroom
Pupils Handling Sources
I have been asked to write an article explaining "just how a source book is to be used, its relation to the textbook, the kind of information and the kind of training a careful teacher can impart through it and the advantage it offers over the exclusive use of secondary material." Instead of answering the whole question and treating all the uses of the source book, it seemed wise to treat but one, the most characteristic use to which the source could be put, namely, the critical study of sources as evidence, for the purpose of training the pupil in the methods of historical proof. The importance that I attach to this matter of method is due to my conception of educational theory and of the logic of historical science. About this broader basis upon which the teaching of history must rest, it may be well to say a word by way of preface.
Method the Object Sought
Personally I am in hearty sympathy with the new educational theory that attributes more importance to the method than to the matter. Professor Lanson, of the University of Paris, the distinguished historian of French literature, has given so satisfactory a formulation that I cannot do better than reproduce his statement.
"Now it is necessary," he writes, "to prove that what we need today is minds scientifically trained. Let us understand by this word (scientifically) that sounds so ambitious, minds that have the taste or the sense for the true, that carry into all their actions a serious desire for clear and exact knowledge, that are conscious of the difficulties and dangers that one encounters in the pursuit of or in the elaboration of truth, that distrusting everybody, themselves as well as others, take all the precautions indicated in each case in order not to deceive themselves or to be deceived: these precautions are what we call methods. The methodical search for truth! There, in a word, is what the scientific spirit means and to make it dominate in secondary education is to subordinate all studies to the idea that their common end, their convergent directions ought to be to fashion minds that all their lives, in all things will know how to practice the methodical search for truth. . . . In every study and exercise, the aim of the master ought to be to develop in the minds of his pupils the sense and the taste for truth, to cause them to note how in each subject the truth is found or missed, to put them, finally, in possession of a certain method or discipline appropriate to a certain object. It is not a matter of having them learn a large number of laws and facts, but, by well-chosen examples, to learn what a mathematical truth is and how it is elaborated; likewise a chemical truth, a physiological truth, an astronomical truth, and a historical truth. How does each of these truths of different orders come into existence? By what means does it separate itself from other truths? What are the signs by which we recognize it as truth? There is the knowledge that ought to be the principal result of their studies. The young people ought to leave high school having learned well what the principal methods are by which human knowledge is formed and to what objects, for what results, each method is applied. They ought, on leaving school, to be trained to do nothing without method, without a method chosen with discernment, according to the object to be known or the end to be attained."
This appeals to me as the application to education of the best recent thought in philosophy and logic. Now the interesting thing is that in this country, where the mass of the teachers would probably reject the theory and where the supreme emphasis is being laid on the acquisition of information as the goal of educational effort, the teachers of natural science are doing the very thing the theory demands, namely, teaching methods or processes by which one can get at the truth or test what is supposed to be the truth in natural science, and giving along with the knowledge of these processes but a modicum of information. The information acquired in a laboratory course is not sufficient to justify the time given to the course. But it is not necessary to justify it on any such ground. M. Lanson has given the theory of which this natural science laboratory work is the application. It only remains to become conscious of what it means, to extend the same method to other studies and a great revolution has been wrought in education, perhaps the greatest in the history of pedagogy.
The Historical Method
No subject would be more transformed in its teaching by the introduction of method work than history. But what is history? What are the materials with which the student works and what the method by which he arrives at historical truth? What is proof in historical study? The teacher of history must be able to give an answer to these questions, if he would do his work intelligently and effectively.
What is history? How does it differ in its aims and methods from natural science, from political and economic science, from sociology? According to the new logic, the differences are fundamental. History concerns itself with the unique evolution of man in his activities as a social being. It deals with human potentialities in their teleological connections. Out of past social facts it selects the unique facts that have a value for the period that is being studied and groups these facts in complex evolving wholes. History does not seek for what is common to the social facts of the past; it does not attempt to generalize, to establish laws. It could not if it would, for it deals with facts that have occurred but once, that will not occur again, and a generalization assumes repetition. The natural sciences, on the other hand, including economics, political science, and sociology, deal with substances and causal law. They select for their syntheses what is common to a group of facts; they generalize, they aim to establish laws, to formulate the conditions under which a thing will repeat itself. Their ideal is the organization of reality under the point of view of the general. There is, of course, but one reality and natural science and history are simply two logical methods evolved by the human mind for the purpose of organizing it that it may be comprehended. The ends of the two methods are different, and their methods of getting at the truth are different. The student trained in the one method is not necessarily acquainted with the other.
The Historian's Work
The natural science method consists of a direct study of the facts, and, as it is not concerned with the unique as unique, it may create situations and conditions, thus securing abundant data for generalization. For the historian this is impossible. He studies not the fact, as the natural scientist studies plants, animals, and chemicals in the laboratory; he has only the record of the fact, the fact itself having gone never to return. His knowledge of the fact will depend upon the abundance and value of the records the fact has left behind it. Such records we call sources. Sources, then, are the remains of man's social activities. They fall naturally into two groups: remains and tradition. Remains consist of objects that were parts of the past event, and have survived the destructive action of time; tradition embraces the impressions of the event recorded by witnesses, and may be oral, written, or pictorial in form. The historic reconstruction, found in the narrative text, is based, in a large majority of cases, upon written tradition.
What is the method employed by the historian in restoring the past from a study of the sources? In simple language what he does is this: he selects a subject for investigation, searches for all the sources that can throw any light upon it, criticizes these sources to determine their value and relationship, compares the affirmations contained in them to learn what the fact was, and, finally, groups these facts in a complex whole. It is only through an acquaintance with this process, through the practical application of it, that the pupil really learns what the grounds for historical belief are and is able to distinguish between fact and fiction. No amount of reading, even of the sources, can ever take the place of this critical training in the historical method, just as no amount of textbook work in natural science can ever take the place of the knowledge of method obtained by actual work at the laboratory table. I am aware that there are well-known teachers and even very distinguished writers of history in this country who treat this idea of training in historical method, even for undergraduates in college, as a matter not worthy of serious consideration. Notwithstanding this opposition in high places, I am of the opinion that the method can be taught and that it should be taught and that in teaching it results have been obtained that are quite as encouraging, it seems to me, as those obtained in the laboratories of the natural sciences. Most of the arguments made against the teaching of the method in the secondary schools are quite aside from the question. It is not to the point to emphasize the difficulties of the historical work, the impossibility of obtaining from young people results that can be obtained only by trained investigators, or the unwisdom of investigating subjects that have never been investigated before, although, for my part, I can see no serious objection to this last course. All that the sensible teacher, who knows what he is about, expects to accomplish by the critical study of the sources is to open the eyes of his students to the meaning of proof in history, to create an attitude of healthy skepticism and to put into their hands an instrument for getting at the truth that they will have occasion to use every hour in the day. If it is worthwhile to acquaint the student with the methods of the natural sciencesand I believe that it isit is certainly imperatively important to give him some training in the use of proof touching the truth of things that he is constantly concerned with, namely, the facts of social life. This position seems so self-evident to me that I can hardly conceive it possible that a teacher, who accepts the new theory of education and realizes the meaning of historical method, would take any exceptions to it. It might, however, be objected that, while the method ought to be taught, it is not practicable to teach it. It is to this objection that the rest of this article will be addressed.
Equipment for Source Work
It is well to concede at the outset that historical method cannot be taught successfully by a teacher who does not know what it means or who has never applied the method, i.e., done some research work. But perhaps nothing would contribute more to the development of a poorly trained history teacher than to oblige him to teach the method; he would be forced to learn something about it! It is because we have not emphasized the method, because we have not required our candidates for positions as teachers of history to know how to investigatewhat would we think of a teacher of chemistry who could not direct the work in the laboratory!that we have so much absolutely impossible history teaching. The question is, then, can a teacher who knows what historical proof means successfully conduct exercises in historical method in a high school? I think there can be no doubt of it. It is being done.
To conduct the work successfully a source book, differing in some respects from the majority of source books, is needed. There are two kinds of historical facts: one class can be established by a single source; the otherand this is the more difficult, but at the same time the more valuable as trainingcan be proved to be true only by the agreement of independent sources or witnesses. For this last kind of work, more than two sources treating the same event are necessary. As most of the source books are only intended to supply collateral reading, they contain little material that could be used for critical exercises. My source book on Greek history contains some such exercises, and it would be a matter of no great difficulty to supplement the sources in any of the books by two or three extracts dealing with the same topic.
Sources in the Classroom
Two exercises a week would be enough for intensive critical work. The sources should, of course, be in the hands of the pupils and the attention of the class should never be allowed to stray from the evidence in the text. It is not necessary that the work should be systematic at the outset or that it should be forced. It might be introduced in a simple and natural way by an attempt to settle the truth of some point upon which two school texts disagree. It is a common practice, in schools where several narratives are used, to assign difficult texts to different pupils and in the recitation hour, to compare the statements of the writers. Suppose they disagree? I once asked a teacher who employs this method what she did in such a case. She answered that they discussed the matter, and, if they could reach no agreement as to which statement was correct, they dropped it. A more pernicious practice could hardly be imagined. The class was run into a blind alley and left there! The escape was easy enough, if the teacher had been master of the situation. It offered an excellent point of departure for the instruction of the study of historical method.
The problem should have been selected by the teacher, as one easy of solution, the trap laid and the class led into it. The texts disagree; which states the truth? Who wrote the texts? Suppose the event treated is from the French Revolution. How did the writers know anything about it? What were their sources? How could we find out what actually happened a century ago? Evidently through the records made by witnesses of the events. Have we any such on this topic and who are they? This question may be answered by the teacher, who might put the sources into the hands of the pupils, or a simple problem in bibliography might be set for the class and the exercise postponed until the next meeting. Let the pupils bring into class the statement of at least one man who, they assume, knew something about this event. Take up these sources in turn. How do the pupils know that this account was really written by this man? (Genuineness.) How do they know that the man really knew anything about the event? (Localization.) How do they know that he made a correct record of what he saw? (Value of the source, based on perception and memory.) Even if the man is a good witness, does his unsupported statement (affirmation) prove the fact? Dwell on the possibilities of error: show that even if he wishes to tell the truth, no man can be certain that his uncontrolled memory is not playing him false or that he saw the thing correctly in the first place. Will the agreement of two witnesses be sufficient to give us certainty? Show that this is true only when the witnesses are independent of each other. In the problem taken up by the class, are there two of more independent witnesses? Is the fact upon which the school texts disagree settled by the agreement of two independent witnesses? If so, why do the texts disagree? It may be due to the fact that each writer used but one source, and that the statement in that source was incorrect, or the witnesses may disagree and one writer may have accepted one statement; the other, another. If the conclusions are not equally probable, try to show on which side the weight of probability lies. Point out, further in conclusion, that where we are not certain as to what happenedwhere the witnesses disagreewe have only probability, not certainty, and the secondary text ought to make this clear.
Pupils Handling Sources
The work may be continued in this way, the secondary text supplying the weekly problem, or the teacher may cut loose from the text and supply graded problems that increase in difficulty. In the latter case, the class should be supplied with the problem, the sources (two or three), and such biographical data as will enable the pupils to criticize the sources. Take each source up in turn and require written answers, with citation of proof, to the following questionnaire: 1. Is this source genuine? 2. Who wrote it and when and where was it written? 3. How much of it is first-hand evidence and how much is second-hand, i.e., how much did the witness see and hear himself and how much did he get from some other person? 4. What is the value of the source as a whole, judged by the character of the source (speech, letter, newspaper, pamphlet, song, poem, etc.), the personality of the witness (intellectually and morally) and the time and place of making the records? 5. Make a note of what the witness affirms concerning the event (interpretation). Let the independent criticism of the sources be followed by a comparison of them to learn whether or not they are independent. Finally, request the pupils to bring together under one head the affirmations of the different witnesses on the point under investigation and endeavor to determine by a comparison of their statements what the truth is. The result should be formulated in writing in the shape of a definite assertion, if the agreement of the independent witnesses justifies us in regarding the fact as certain; otherwise it should be presented simply as probable.
As a specific illustration, take the extracts on the battle of Salamis given in my Source Book of Greek History (pp. 118-127). Here are three sources, Aeschylus' Persians, Herodotus' History, and Plutarch's Life of Themistocles, "containing almost all the information we possess upon the portion of the battle dealt with in the source book. The extracts are accompanied by the following questions that should be answered in writing by the pupils and form the foundation of the classroom exercise: 1. Compare the three accounts of the battle of Salamis given by Aeschylus, Herodotus, and Plutarch, noting in what they agree and in what they disagree. Are they independent? 2. Which account is the most valuable, and why? 3. Point out the myths in these accounts, i.e., things that could not have happened. 4. Make an outline of the battle, using the sources, and write a brief narrative, citing the sources. Where they agree, explain why you follow one source rather than another.
The answer to the first question should be given in the form of three parallel columns containing all the single affirmations found in the different sources, references to similar details appearing on the same line in the different columns, thus facilitating comparison. These columns should be followed by (1) a column containing the common details found in all the sources, (2) a second column of details referred to by two sources, and (3) other columns containing details given by but one source. In going through this operation all the pupils will have noticed that Plutarch made use of the Persians, and, consequently, is not independent of Aeschylus. Before the questions concerning the independence and value of the sources can be answered, the sources must be localized. Aeschylus probably fought in the battle of Salamis and was thus an eyewitness. Note, however, the character of this source: a play performed before the Athenian people and presented some seven years after the event. A play does not offer a good opportunity to describe a battle in detail; a dramatist would be influenced by his desire to produce a work of art and to impress his audience; he would have forgotten much in the years that had passed since the battle. Although the record of an eyewitness, we cannot look upon this play as the best kind of evidence.
Herodotus was an infant, playing on the streets of Halicarnassus, when the battle of Salamis was fought. He wrote his account nearly fifty years later, basing it largely, almost wholly, upon oral tradition, although it is highly probable that he was acquainted with the Persians when he wrote. Nothing that Herodotus tells us here came from personal observation, nor do we know where he obtained his information, i.e., whether it was simply common report that he gathered up, or whether he talked with the most reliable witnesses of the battle. His account is less valuable than that of Aeschylus as a second-hand record, but its forma direct, detailed prose narrativeis more favorable to truth.
Plutarch lived five hundred years after the battle and obtained his information about it as a reader today would obtain information about the voyages of Columbus, namely, by reading what later writers had to say about them. He was not a critical historianneither was Herodotusand often based his narrative upon the poorest kind of evidence. He refers in this extract to four of the men of whose writings he has made use, and one of them is Aeschylus.
The evidence is not, as a whole, of a satisfactory kind; the one witness says little, and that in an unfortunate form, written seven years after the battle; the second writer depends upon oral tradition, reproduced when it was so old that it had become unreliable; the third writer is five centuries removed from the event and an uncritical compiler. How much certainty can we reach about the battle of Salamis from such evidence as this? Possibly only the fact that the battle took place, for it is not even certain that the Greeks won the sweeping victory that is claimed in the Persians. The details of the battle are only probable, and the degree of probability is decidedly low. This will become very clear when the outline is made and it is realized how much of our information comes from Herodotus' late oral tradition. The only safe basis of historical certainty, the agreement of independent witnesses, is lacking here.
After the class has written a narrative of the battle, let them compare it with the narrative in two or three of the best school histories. They will be somewhat surprised to learn that these accounts contain no suggestion of the uncertainty that surrounds the history of the battle, but describe it with all the confidence that might be displaced by a historian of events established by a cloud of witnesses.
It may be objected that this sort of source work will raise serious doubts in the pupils' minds as to whether we know anything with certainty about the history of the early centuries. But what if it does? What harm has been done, if the impression is a correct one? Is not much of our knowledge concerning the history of the Greeks and the Romans of the most fragile character? Why attempt to conceal it? Should not the pupils be taught by this kind of critical study that much of what is repeated with confidence as history has hardly a shred of valuable evidence to rest on? It is the first step toward the attainment of the ideal that M. Lanson has so clearly and convincingly set before us.