Sunday, March 6, 2011

Something away from the regular

My students have a problem. Why am I mentioning it here? Because the problem is that they have trouble with reading. It's not entirely their fault - they've never been taught how to read. Specifically, they have never learned to read a primary source document.

Primary source documents, of course, are the bread and butter of the historian. The letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, speeches, posters, maps, and all of the various scraps of writing and such that humans use to document their day to day lives - without them, historians would have no material on which to practice our discipline. As a key part of my syllabus, I give my students a piece of primary source material each week. Currently, I'm teaching the "1st half" of US History - roughly, Columbus to the Civil War - so I've been giving them speeches and chapters of novels; a sermon, later, some thing from the Federalist Papers, perhaps. Possibly the Gettysburg Address, or one of Lincoln's inaugural addresses.

The goal is to have them discuss the material once a week, but this turns into a lengthy period of explanation of the material. Part of this is certainly because the 18th century prose is quite dense; filled with clauses and classical references, and written in a high rhetorical style that assumes a certain body of education. Perhaps it is unfair of me to expect them to be able to cut their way through this jungle of verbiage unguided, but I do try to provide them with some landmarks.  Each reading comes with a short note about the author, where needed, and some comment about context as well. I present each reading with a couple of sentences of lecture on the reading - why I have assigned it, perhaps a few words on how it was received at the time. Further, only part of the problem is the prose - they had trouble with a reading from Swallow Barn by John Pendleton Kennedy. (That link goes to a free version of the work, which was published in 1832, and is thus firmly in the public domain) Kennedy, who pioneered the "plantation novel" genre, wrote with as clear a prose as you could want. My students complained because the reading "didn't go anywhere."

Swallow Barn is an excellent example of what I'm trying to talk about, actually. It's a novel about plantation life in a romanticized version of historical Virginia. It was written by a resident of Baltimore, at a time when the cultural centre of the US South was in Charleston, South Carolina. There are slaves in the novel, because you can't have a plantation novel without slaves. I challenged my students to "find the slaves" in the first chapter. It took them several minutes to locate a quiet reference to slaves in the midst of the discussion of the plantation goods and animals. It took them another several minutes to twig to what that meant; both that the slaves were "hidden" and that they were listed as part of the plantation fixings. I asked them to compare the Kennedy work to a chapter from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (also in the public domain, and well worth reading), a book clearly written by a Northern author (and about 20 years after Kennedy). They had trouble with the exercise, I had to walk them through it.

I'd like to stress something here. These students are not stupid. In fact, they are some of the brightest students I've had in some time, which is why I'm mildly disturbed by their inability to interact with primary sources on the most basic level - comparing them to one another, extracting simple information from them, answering questions based on the reading, that sort of thing. The only thing I can attribute this to (besides the denseness of the prose) is that they have not been taught to do these things for themselves. James Loewen, in Lies My Teacher Told Me (that one isn't in the public domain yet, but it's also worth reading) concludes something similar. Loewen's book is somewhat poorly named, in that it is not an indictment of teachers. Rather, it attacks the history textbook industry, which produces the general texts students are given as a key element of their early historical education. Loewen has many problems with the history textbooks in American schools, but one of the elements he brings up is the practice of describing historical documents rather than providing the document for the students to address.* This, combined with the bland, anti-controversial style of writing which  dominates history texts, results in a population of high school students who are a) convinced that history is boring and who b) cannot read a primary source text.

So, what difference does this make? Well, it makes a lots of differences, actually. First, it means that these students are primed to accept the word of "experts" about what a text means. That's dangerous. Second, it means that they are unable to read critically, which is, perhaps, a subset of the first problem, and certainly no less dangerous. Third, it means that they are cut off, almost irrevocably, from their own past, which is sad, but also dangerous, as indicated in Jill Lepore's By The Whites of Their Eyes (that link goes to my review of the Lepore) - people who do not understand their own past can be mislead by charlatans who know how to manipulate their perception of the record.

I'm not really sure what to do about this, beyond what I'm already doing. Perhaps you have some ideas?

* mmy triggered this musing in her discussion of North American news reporting of the uprisings in the Mid East and North Africa. She commented that North American news channels tend to place a commentator (at best - a talking head at worst) between their audiences and the story. Specifically, she points out that the BBC and Al Jazeera irectly broadcast Colonel Gaddafi's speeches, which North American channels told their audiences about what they thought that Gaddafi's speeches meant.

x-posted here.