Beacon Street Diary blog

Bringing Primary Sources into the Classroom: The CLA's Role as a Producer of Digital Resources

by Zachary Bodnar, Archivist

This past week, the staff of the CLA read and discussed the book Lies My Teacher Told Me by James W. Loewen. The book was an excellent read and the discussions thereafter were even better. Loewen’s breakdown of how high school history textbooks routinely and systematically present false, incomplete, or problematic versions of US history is damning and underscores why high schoolers regularly rate history as their least favorite subject. The fault does not lie with educators though. The need to “teach to the test” plays a huge part in the problem, and the outsized influence of certain textbook markets means publishers create textbooks with as little controversy as possible. The results are that teachers must teach the answers that appear in multichoice tests and that the textbooks that contain those answers rarely, if ever, present history as the chaotic mess that it really is. In the end we are left to forget that Woodrow Wilson was a proud racist whose destabilizing interventions in Latin America are still felt today and remember Helen Keller only for the uplifting story of her overcoming her dual disabilities and not for her socialist politics and support for eugenics. History is messy but you would never know from an AP US History course.

One of the things that struck me after reading Lies was the complete absence of primary and secondary sources from history textbooks. Sure, excerpts of primary sources, some comically inserted or distorted, might appear within textbooks, but they are rarely engaged with. The field of history is messy, and that mess all starts with primary sources. The best history assignment I was ever given was during my sophomore year of college in an early-US history course. We were given a packet of primary and early-secondary sources about the Boston Massacre and told “describe what happened during the Boston Massacre.” Of course, if you know anything about the Boston Massacre, you know that basically no sources corroborate one another, so the exercise was to piece together a plausible narrative based on the available sources. The Boston Massacre is a particularly messy example, but this is basically how all history is done. Except you would never know if by reading your history textbook.

In the past, it would never have been particularly feasible though for high schoolers to look at primary sources. Access the primary sources, especially in the yesteryears, was not exactly the most accessible due to problems of geography, money, and repository policies. But the internet has slowly, and steadily, been changing that. Digitization does not only provide access to researchers, but it also provides access to students, and creates opportunities that they might never have had before digitization and new ways of accessing those digital records. And we at the CLA are so proud to be a part of this story of increasing access through digitization. But digitization alone is not enough.

As I have talked in the past, access is more than simply publishing digital content to the web. It is necessary to properly describe digital content and provide both the tools necessary to search for content and find “like” content through linked data. But even that is not necessarily enough. It is important too the present digital content in ways that fit various audiences. For a seasoned researcher, examining digital records found via search results will likely be enough. But if we are to bring the CLA’s digital resources into the classroom, we must also be thinking about how to engage that audience. Complex searches alone are not enough.

Fortunately, there is one clear avenue of access when it comes to the classroom, and that is the teacher. One of the highlights of the CLA’s internal discussion of Lies was an acknowledgement that the CLA needs to be producing more curricula-like content. The excitement and activity surrounding the release of the “Plymouth’s Pilgrims” curriculum was palpable. We want to be doing more of that in the future! We want to create opportunities for students, educators, and interested parties to use our resources for educational purposes. While we alone might not be able to change how history is taught in high school, we do hope to play some part in the changing face of American education by encouraging educators to use our unique collection of digital resources.