Choosing Primary Documents on Purpose

I was introduced to E. H. Carr’s What is History in graduate school in the early 90s and have read through it at least four times since then. Carr’s assertion that “the facts speak on when the historian calls on them” applies to teachers as well. We decide who make the cut and who doesn’t.

Our summer planning, deliberate and comprehensive with the luxury of time, allows us to make thoughtful choices among Crispus Attucks, Christopher Seider or Andrew Oliver in the Revolutionary War unit, or between Claudette Colvin or Rosa Parks when teaching about Civil Rights. Summer planning fades by October when these decisions are made on Sunday afternoons and the luxury of contemplation is gone. It’s all but evaporated by December when we hope to get to school early enough to decide between Zachary Taylor and the Donnor Party. Anyone who thinks you can do all of these has never had to complete a US History course in just one year, hoping to free the slaves by winter break so you can land on the moon by spring break.

All of these instructional choices will shape our students’ understanding of that period of history. But the vast majority of the history people’s lives remain hidden in the past, silent and unknown. If we gave the implications of our decisions the full weight of their responsibility, we’d be paralyzed.

It’s too easy to use last year’s lesson, or the great idea you picked up at a conference. You only have so much time, you have to keep up with the course schedule and you can’t totally ignore state standards. Most instructional choices are made of necessity. The vast majority of the documents, stories, lessons and history that make the cut into public school history classrooms have been there before. In fact, they’ve been their forever.

Take the Mayflower Compact for example. It is in dozens of state standards, textbooks and curriculum guides. It’s on pinterest, teacherspayteachers and every Social Studies department’s shared Google Drive. Most often it appears in a primary document analysis lesson that hopes students will be able to draw conclusions about colonial society in New England or at least genuflect for the first written declaration of self-government in the colonies. But what does the Compact really teach about the colonial society of New England?

Imagine how different colonial society looks when viewed through the lens of the Records of the governor and company of the Massachusetts bay in New England?

The signatories of the Mayflower Compact committed themselves to frame “just and equal laws”, yet just a few years later they were whipping people and cutting their ears off for what they said. Phillip Ratliffe was closed to history, one of Carr’s uncalled-upon facts. But with a couple clicks he can be brought into the classroom and put in front of students to reconsider their understanding of colonial society in New England.

The question is – does he make the cut?

Still Fighting the Civil War

A couple of days ago, Smithsonian published an article by Keri Leigh Merritt criticizing the Ken Burns Civil War documentary Why We Need a New Civil War Documentary  It’s a worthwhile read, here’s the thesis:


The documentary had an outsized effect on how many Americans think about the war, but it’s one that unfortunately lead to a fundamental misunderstanding about slavery and its legacies—a failing that both undergirds and fuels the flames of racism today.


Along with her criticism of the principal focus on the military aspects of the war and minimization of the slavery that caused it, she went after Shelby Foote, whose 45 minutes in the series (as opposed to historian Barbara Field’s 8 1/2 minutes) had him pontificating in “an accent as thick and sweet as Tupelo honey” though he had no training as a historian. Her piece was not well received by the “Civil War Enthusiast” crowd.

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The real gem of the story of Merritt’s piece and its reaction on Twitter was a post by Trae Wisecarver, a PhD student at Texas A&M University.  It’s a priceless 2 1/2 minutes.  Students should know that all historians are not all hermits hidden away in dusty archives, some are passionate warriors for the truth.  On another note, what did you think of Trae when you first saw him and heard his voice?