Primary Sources in the Classroom: Politics and Pedagogy

This is my first “real” blog post for The Junto, though I’ve been a spectral presence each Sunday with a gathering of links on early American history (which the past month or so has revolved a great deal around Lincoln and Django Unchained). One of my aspirations in agreeing to contribute, and one of my hopes for a developing conversation, centered on the opportunity to discuss teaching early American history, from the 100-level survey to upper-level courses. So I offered for this post to write something about teaching primary sources, without at the time knowing quite what I would say.

Then, last week, the National Association of Scholars released a report assailing colleges in Texas (the flagships – UT-Austin and A&M) for teaching too much “race, class, and gender,” and not enough political, diplomatic, and economic history. I wrote about a few of the report’s shortcomings at Publick Occurrences 2.0 on Friday. You can read the substance over there, but as I was writing I realized that I want to extend my thoughts to think more deeply about what we do in the classroom.

In particular, I want to take advantage of the broader audience of this blog to start to open up some of what happens in the classroom and why, even—and perhaps especially—with the “traditional” documents of American history: the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Gettysburg Address, and so on. [NB: I teach the first half of the survey, which ends in 1877.] I hope that readers will share in the comments their own experiences teaching primary sources from the survey and what perspectives they aim to bring to class.

The critique at the heart of the NAS report is that social and cultural history have overtaken political history as a means of understanding the past. As a political historian myself, I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of thinking and teaching about politics. But I and many other political historians would contend that asking questions about society and culture only strengthen approaches to political history. And even when we ask political questions, we do so in a way that attends to the concerns of our colleagues rather than those of American mythologists. Treating the classics with dainty reverence does no one any good.

First and foremost, regardless of topic, I want students to ask their own questions about the past, to come to their own interpretations of documents, and not simply to receive some sort of “wisdom of the past.” In fact, I see my role as quite the opposite. Whatever I believe to be true, in many ways I want to be the devil’s advocate, that is, to break my students of the ingrained interpretations and myths they learned as children. If they return to them, that’s fine with me, so long as they do it from an analytical and interrogative standpoint.

Do I try, therefore, to convince students that Jefferson and Congress cynically lied about their commitment to inalienable rights in the Declaration? No, not at all. But by putting the document into a broader context, I suggest that they need to ask questions about what the Declaration meant and why it was structured the way that it was. (This differs, in both verb tense and angle, from the perspective of a political philosopher who seeks enduring meaning. I don’t think that’s my job either, most of the time.)

I do assign the Declaration on the syllabus, and when students arrive, I pull a simple trick to change how they encounter it. I give them a brief synopsis of the early months of 1776 and the push for independence (including the publication of Common Sense and essentially a synthesis of Pauline Maier’s argument about local moves for independence), make one cutting joke about John Adams’ poor prediction skills (I cannot resist, despite teaching in Massachusetts), and then ask students to stand up. Many people first encountered the Declaration, I note, not by reading it in a history textbook, but by hearing it—at their church, in a town square, at a public celebration. And then we read it. What could be more patriotic?

[UPDATE: I seem to have left the impression that I read the Declaration to students, based on a number of comments people have made. Just to clarify, the students themselves read the Declaration, one sentence per person, going around the room. I usually take the last sentence because we’re into the second round through and I don’t want to miss out.]

Once we’ve finished, though, students invariably notice things they never notice before. The first paragraph, that rhetorical icon passed down as the embodiment of the spirit of American freedom, now seems much more like a brief preface. What stands out in reading the document aloud are the grievances. Many had probably skimmed them (Lord knows I have many a time) because they just knew coming in that that part of the document wasn’t important. Many hadn’t even noticed the final paragraph, which is, of course, the actual act of declaring independence.

In this case, I haven’t invoked race, class, or gender. I suppose it’s a bit of a bottom-up interpretation to ask students to hear the Declaration rather than read it, but not by much. Yet that simple act opens up a world of questions that students can address. Instead of staid language that conveys some inherent notions about America, we can discuss why the Declaration looks the way it does. What purpose does that first paragraph serve? Why so many grievances? Who were the audiences?

Now we don’t get very far in fifty minutes, which includes fifteen to read the whole thing aloud, and the survey moves fast – I’m probably unusual in setting aside a full class period for it. But it opens a series of questions about American politics in 1776 that are far more interesting than simply conveying a narrative about America’s creation. And only once during class do I put my thumb on the scale. As a print historian, I refuse to recognize the parchment copy drafted a month later, hidden for months, and unremarkable for decades as the “original.” No, that honor goes to the Dunlap Broadside, printed on July 4, 1776, and bearing only the names of John Hancock, President, Charles Thomson, Secretary, and John Dunlap, printer.

7 comments on “Primary Sources in the Classroom: Politics and Pedagogy

  1. “The critique at the heart of the NAS report is that social and cultural history have overtaken political history as a means of understanding the past. As a political historian myself, I’m certainly not opposed to the idea of thinking and teaching about politics. But I and many other political historians would contend that asking questions about society and culture only strengthen approaches to political history.”

    I think I would go further: I don’t think it’s possible to do political (or, since we’re talking about the founding, intellectual) history without talking about the lives real people lived. When people try to teach American political and military history without its proper social and cultural context, what they’re really doing is teaching it with *their own* social and cultural context.

    Because what’s the point of politics if it doesn’t have anything to do with the way people interact in real life? To downplay cultural and social history is to deny the real power of wars, revolutions, constitutions, property laws, and emancipations — not to elevate it.

    I have an exercise I like to use at either the beginning or the end of a survey course. I ask students to come up with lists of events they would include in a history of the United States during their lifetimes. These don’t have to be things they remember, I say — just things they know happened since they were born (i.e., since the early 1990s, in most cases now). Then I write their answers on the blackboard. What I get is almost always a list of terrible things — wars, massacres, 9/11 (on everyone’s list), tragic accidents, and bitter political fights — mixed with a few positive or whimsical things (Facebook, the Lakers three-peat). I ask the students to talk about the history they see shaping up on the blackboard. And then I ask them whether this is how they have experienced their own lives. Would a future historian writing this way be giving their descendants a good picture of how they lived?

    I’ve gotten some very thoughtful responses to that set of questions. It seems to stir up a lot of different ideas about what history is for. On one hand, it leads some students to question the political/military content they associate with history. On the other, it highlights how important political/military history is to their immediate media environment.

  2. Ken Owen says:

    Well, I’ve already gotten two excellent ideas that I’ll certainly be using when I teach this semester. (I’m teaching the Revolution class, which in some ways makes the suggestions you give here much easier to fit into the class time).

    If there is a problem in teaching race, class and gender, I think it’s in finding the right mix of sources to give to students. I’m a big believer in using primary sources in class, and some of the ‘RCG’ assignments I give work very well (students normally respond well to the Lowell Mill Girls, for example). But I always feel I’m being much more limited in the sources I give out on social and cultural history than I am with political history sources. Perhaps this is just my training, but I think it’s easier to mine the Declaration of Independence or the City on a Hill sermon than it is to parse a diary extract of similar length written by a shoemaker.

    Of course, that’s where giving wider readings comes in – it’s necessary to give that synthetic background to our students to make the other materials presented make sense.

  3. Carl Robert Keyes says:

    I also appreciate the suggestions for classroom exercises (which I am looking forward to using in my courses this semester), so I’m offering one that I have successfully used in return.

    In my Revolutionary America course, I have students read the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, a chapter from Richard Beeman’s Plain Honest Men: The Making of the American Constitution (chapter 11. “Compromise: Large States, Small States, Slave States, and Free States”), and a chapter from a textbook (which will continue to change every time I teach the course until I find a textbook I really like). I require my students to do a short writing assignment about the reading in preparation for each class. To go with these readings, I give this assignment:

    We will be holding our own Constitutional Convention on Friday morning. You will be responsible for representing one of the new states (as assigned below). To prepare for our convention, you must submit a descriptive analysis of what you would like to see included in the new frame of government. Your wishes will likely be contingent on whether you represent a large state or a small state, a slave state or a free state, but there may be other issues you wish to address.

    You may wish to consult the Population Statistics information posted on Blackboard to help you understand more about your state and its interests.

    Note: Your job here is to faithfully represent the interests of your state as citizens in the late eighteenth century would have expressed them. You do not need to agree with those ideas in order to understand them or to act as an effective advocate. You do not need to offer apologies for any views you may express; instead, you may assume that your classmates and I understand that you are exploring historical perspectives and do not necessarily agree with the ideas you are presenting.

    List of Delegates:
    [insert states and students’ names here]

    I’ve learned several things from experience as I have revised this exercise over the years. First, many students learn more about the various interests of all the states when they are initially responsible for knowing about only one state really well. By becoming an advocate for a particular state and interacting with their peers who vigorously advocate for other states, students absorb much more of the material and gain a more complete understanding of the different perspectives and the ultimate compromises.

    The note on replicating an eighteenth-century mentality has been a crucial addition to the exercise. Before I included it, many students, especially those representing slave states, only halfheartedly presented their proposals. They often offered a preamble: “I don’t really believe this, but …” Once I assured them that nobody would question their modern sensibilities just because they accurately articulated the views of men from the eighteenth century during a roleplaying exercise most students felt free to boldly pursue the interests of their assigned state. Some of the debates have been very lively (with students vigorously objecting to proposals or claims presented by others), making the experience both more memorable and more representative of the real Constitutional Convention.

    Finally, students cannot be allowed to elect their own president of their Constitutional Convention. The instructor needs to play the role of Washington to guide the discussion and debate in ways that make sure the conversation moves forward.

    My department hosts a dinner for our graduating seniors every spring. Each student is asked to say a few words about his or her experiences in the program. In the past couple of years, several students have mentioned that re-enacting the Constitutional Convention helped to bring the political issues of the era alive for them.

  4. Thanks for the comments, and especially Jonathan and Carl for the great suggestions for teaching exercises. I appreciate hearing about what others are doing and finding ways to share ideas.

    To respond to Jonathan and Ken, I agree that we need to make the connection between the political (and/or intellectual) and the everyday lived experience. So Ken, when students do encounter diaries or other personal accounts (to use the Revolution, how about Joseph Plumb Martin?), I think we should as always be cognizant of the kinds of questions we ask. It is possible, that is, to ask about both everyday life (he was always hungry) and about higher political and intellectual purposes (in which JPM’s experience seems to diverge from what they read of the political literature – he was not particularly engaged ideologically). I was hoping that teaching primary sources would be a regular part of the discussion here, so perhaps I’ll think about how to frame a discussion about other sorts of documents for another post, unless one of you gets there first.

  5. […] has a nice post on how he teaches the US Declaration of Independence in his early US survey — he reads it aloud; with the class standing, as in an 18th century church or town meeting — and I thought I […]

  6. […] from the Junto Archives, you can revisit pieces by Joseph Adelman on teaching the Declaration of Independence and Roy Rogers on Pauline Maier’s book on the Declaration of Independence, American […]

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