Encounters with Primary Sources: On Teaching Critical Thinking in History


by Luke Yarbrough, Assistant Professor, Department of History

Last week a student in one of my courses told me that she was feeling frustrated. In the course—an advanced seminar on how the concept of “jihad” has been interpreted historically—students break up each week into three “task forces,” each of which works to master an assigned primary or secondary source. All three sources connect to the week’s theme, which might for instance be “Holy Striving Before Islam,” or “Modernist Interpretations of Jihad.” It’s the task force’s job to teach the rest of us about their source and what it adds to our understanding of the theme. For the third week in a row, this particular student found herself in a task force that had been dealt a primary rather than a secondary source. “With a secondary source you have a beginning and an end and an argument,” she said. “But with a primary source you have to figure out what it even is, and then think up what you’re going to say about it.”

Professional historians share her frustration, though most of them, in their peculiar way, have developed a taste for it. Primary sources—the most direct textual or material evidence we have with which to answer a given historical question—always present gnarly problems. They may bury the information you want in piles of irrelevant detail, or blurt it out it abruptly without context; some are fogged in by the assumptions of the distant era that produced them, others lure the reader into believing that their outlook is perfectly congruent with hers. But to think critically as a historian, rather than just gaping at the results of others’ critical thought (a.k.a. secondary sources), one must come face-to-face with the evidence itself. And this means primary sources, in all their unruly glory. Students who are able to emerge from their encounters with primary sources bearing compelling accounts of what they’ve met have gained a valuable and highly transferrable skill: the ability to arrange perplexing fragments of information into meaningful and therefore useful patterns. Students’ eventual careers, I assure them, will bombard them with a stream of recalcitrant sources to analyze and interpret (customer feedback, market analyses, performance evaluations, etc.).

But the skill to analyze primary sources critically does not spring spontaneously from the collision of student with source. It must be planted and nurtured. The following are a couple of basic approaches that I have used to foster this kind of critical thought among students of history.

1. The source. Even though a major goal of introducing primary sources is for students to experience and overcome bewilderment (i.e., solve problems), the exercise fails if they feel completely overwhelmed. The most effective primary sources for teaching are thus fairly short, and include apparently familiar material alongside unfamiliar, historically specific puzzles to solve. For example, in a pre-modern World History survey, I use a well-known ancient Egyptian text translated from a document known as Papyrus Lansing, which dates to the reign of the pharaoh Senusret III (ca. 1878–1839 BC). In the text, a senior scribe addresses a pupil, whom he berates (in comically exaggerated terms) for falling short of his potential. The scribe then provides a descriptive inventory of the most common careers in ancient Egypt, all of which he deems inferior to that of the scribe, as a way of inducing his pupil to work harder. My students’ sense of solidarity with the talented but struggling pupil, and their amusement at his teacher’s ridiculous self-aggrandizement, establish a notional connection between them and the primary source. This connection in place, students feel more willing to think critically about the non-obvious insights they might derive from the source, for instance about the economic bases or social hierarchies of ancient Egypt.

2. The narrative. A challenge of bringing primary sources into the classroom to teach critical thought is that students are asked to analyze raw evidence at the very same time they are building the knowledge base that makes that evidence meaningful. How is a student to make any real sense of the Qur’an as a historical document if he remains clueless about society, economy, and religion in pre-Islamic Arabia? It would be reasonable to conclude that a teacher should provide the necessary narrative first, and only then introduce primary sources. While this approach can work, I have found that students remain more engaged with the narrative if their minds are already working to unravel a primary-source puzzle. Why, for example, does the Qur’an distance itself from poetry (36:69), when much of its text sounds “poetic” to 21st century ears? I might begin a class on early Islam by presenting this apparent problem, then explain the social and political roles of poetry in the tribal, stateless society of seventh-century western Arabia. By the time students have absorbed the basics of this narrative, they will have begun to form their own defensible solutions to the problem I posed. In a larger sense, by constantly shuttling back and forth between larger narratives and the primary-source evidence on which they are based, students get used to fitting discrete fragments of information into larger stories. They also come to see that the same fragment of information can occupy different yet equally valid places in different stories, and that ultimately all of the history they read (not to mention all of the journalism, annual reports, gossip, etc.) is the product of the evidence-narrative dance that they are learning to perform for themselves. Often they’ll get the dance wrong, of course, by the rigorous standards of professional historians. But it’s more important for students’ own development to practice thinking critically the way historians do—by fitting perplexing, fragmentary, and (yes) frustrating sources into larger narratives in the most persuasive way they can—than merely to watch historians do it.

To accompany our 2015-2016 theme of Thinking Critically, Thinking Creatively, fall contributors were asked to share their thoughts about two questions: 1) What does critical thinking look like in your field or discipline? And 2) How do you teach students to do it?

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