Drinking History from the Font: Primary Sources

Prior to the modern age and the ubiquity of textbooks, it was common for students to learn history by the reading of primary sources. It was taken for granted that the best way to educate oneself about what the ancient Greeks thought was to actually read the writings of the ancient Greeks. If one wanted to learn about the reign of Charlemagne, the best way to do so was to actually dig up and study the royal charters of the Carolingian kingdom. Not only was historical study based on primary sources common, but it was inconceivable that it should be conducted any other way.

This all changed with the dawning of the modern age and the study of history as a “science”, which was greatly influenced by the Positivist movement. The Positivists believed that the entire scope of human phenomenon could be accounted for according to rules of empirical science, and thus ‘experts’ in various disciplines sought to find scientific methods for directing their respective fields of study. While in some cases this effort bore fruit with the development of objective standards of precision in various fields, the Positivists were recklessly optimistic in their belief that the entirety of human phenomenon could be subject to the sort of precision demanded by, say, physics or geometry. Positivism was thus nothing more than materialism as applied to academic methodology.

One discipline that suffered grievously at the hands of the Positivists was history. Like mathematics and natural science, the study of past human affairs was subject to methodologies intended to bring precision to the discipline; more often than not, these “methodologies” simply replaced the pedagogy of a prior age with the prejudices of the current one. Rather than study history from primary sources, historical “data” was compiled by the historian into a compendious textbook. This is the origin of the textbook.

The textbook had several ostensible benefits. First, instead of reading everything a certain person of the past wrote, the textbook offered only the “relevant” data, allowing the history student to “get the gist” of things without having to wade through so much material. Second, the textbook allowed the historian-author to add his own glosses onto the events of history; little insights drawing connections between events, historical assessments of the successes and failures or individuals, highlighting of important innovations—in short, the textbook allowed for a veritable professional commentary on the entire history of mankind. This was held to be a great benefit to the student, who was relieved of having to make these connections himself from the primary texts. Thus the regime of the textbook was supposed to bring scientific rigor and objectivity to the study of history.

Those of us who have abandoned the system of public education recognize implicitly the danger in relying on this sort of method. Nobody denies that textbooks are valuable for drawing connections, highlighting important events, and offering insightful commentary, but very few are still under the illusion that any of this renders the discipline of history more “objective.”  Who decides what is important enough for inclusion in a textbook? By what criteria is something included and another omitted? And if students are judged incapable of sorting through the subjectivity, prejudices, and minutiae they will encounter in primary sources, do we really think they are intellectually equipped to objectively judge the weight of the commentary they read by the academic authors of their textbooks? Indeed, the scholarly textbook can become just another avenue for academia to do violence to young minds by imposing the author’s particular historiographical vision on students who do not have the intellectual formation to notice it, much less resist it.

History poses a particular problem for Positivism. Positivism seeks to find universally applicable laws in all things. History, since it concerns human beings with free will, deals only with particular people and events. Positivism desires universals and history offers only particulars. But there really are no universals in history. There is no universal kingdom, or ruler, or policy, or battle from which general principles can be deduced with absolute certitude—only a slew of various kingdoms, particular rulers, diverse policies, and scores of battles, all unique and particular. As such, we cannot force these events to yield to precise scientific methodologies. To be sure if we study enough battles we will find certain similarities; call them historical “proverbs.” Consider commonly accepted “proverbs” of military history: it is better to have the high ground; the power of greater numbers can be neutralized by forcing a fight in a confined area; to secure victory, outflank the opponent on both sides. These are all generally true, but they fall far short of scientific precision. At best they are ‘rules of thumb’, and no sooner do we state them than a military historian can think of ten exceptions to each.

This is not to say there is no place for science in history. Epigraphy provides valuable information on ancient inscriptions. Paleography is the study of ancient languages. Archaeology has given the world reams of wonderful insights about vanished civilizations. Each of these fields has their own disciplines. Even so, they are bound by the particulars of their subject matter. An epigrapher studying ancient Latin inscriptions will be dumb before the hieroglyphs of Egypt; an archaeologist who excavates Canaanite tells might be clueless on how to find Native American arrowheads along the banks of the Missouri River; the greatest master in ancient Greek pottery might draw a blank if asked to study Aztec gourd pottery. Science can make extremely important contributions, but it cannot unify the whole and turn particulars into universals. There is no unified theory of history.

I am not anti-textbook. I have myself authored textbooks. And there are certainly excellent textbooks out there, both Catholic and secular. But if we are serious about classical education, we need to go back prior to the Positivist educational “reforms” of the early 1900s, which means again incorporating primary sources into our history curriculum. I have been a teacher for almost a decade and have always relied heavily on primary sources. In fact, in most of my online classes I teach through Homeschool Connections, we use only primary sources. No textbooks. I have had wonderful results with this method, which I hope to share with you.

There are many benefits to using primary sources. For one thing, primary sources are often biased. Unabashedly biased. And this is a good thing. When Anna Comnena talks about the half-civilized, barbaric unwashed Norman crusaders, her prejudice is clear. Or when St. Francis de Sales refers to Calvinists as heretics. These sources come from a particular point of view, but it is very self-evident that they do. This actually helps students identify subjectivity in source material, which paradoxically makes them less susceptible to biased writing. A student who has read through centuries of polemical literature knows how to recognize a polemic, whether it shows up in his college textbook or comes from the mouth of a politician. How does it help to build up a student’s defense against biased writing if they never read any? Yes, primary sources can be biased; when an Egyptian engraving depicts Pharaoh Rameses II as forty feet tall and his Hittite opponents barely come up to his ankle, it is obvious whose side the engraver is on. But this sort of blatant subjectivity is much more preferable to the kind of stealth subjectivity one finds in modern textbooks, where “objectivity” is claimed while in reality hidden agendas are relentlessly pushed.

Primary sources also have a way of bringing a story to life by putting us, the reader, in the historical setting. It is one thing to say Mary Queen of Scots was executed on February 8th, 1587. It is quite another thing to read a letter she penned at 2:00 AM that very day, only six hours before she lost her head on the block. Reading the last, hurriedly penned letter of a woman about to die gives a very different perspective than simply noting the fact of her death. In short, reading a primary source helps us “enter in” to history in a way textbooks simply can’t.

Primary sources also simply teach you more and give you a much greater depth of understanding. For example, almost everybody has heard of Martin Luther’s famous 95 Theses. But can you name any of the theses in particular? Even one? “Uh…there’s something about indulgences in there, right?” You get the point. In a textbook only approach, we get very broad strokes but not a lot of depth. What if we actually sat down and read all of Luther’s 95 Theses and discussed their merits and deficiencies? Wouldn’t our understanding of the Protestant Reformation be that much greater? Study from primary sources simply gives the student a much greater depth of knowledge.

Finally, primary source study is fundamental in learning to understand the peoples of the past. To really fall in love with history it is necessary to not only learn the facts of an era but to truly understand it. How did people talk? What sorts of things were important to them? What were their prominent cultural symbols? What sort of literature did they produce? Any thorough understanding of an era requires us to answer these questions—yet these questions cannot be satisfactorily answered unless we “enter in” to the time period in question. A textbook gives us history in the language and style of the author of the textbook; primary sources allow us to go right to the font and learn history in the language and custom of those who lived it. Only primary sources provide this gateway to the world of yesterday. Actually reading the ancient Egyptian Hymn to the Nile gives us much more insight into the religious mind of Egypt than we could get from a textbook.

Returning to the use of primary sources is an indispensable requirement for giving students a firm grasp on history and developing a sense of objectivity in reading historical writings. And it is the classical way, which alone is a weighty argument in its favor.


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