Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 5 of 10

The 1950s, for example, saw an ongoing struggle over the status of women in Singapore (leading, in part, to the Women’s Charter of 1961), as people organized around and debated issues such as discrimination, family planning, and polygamy. Evidence of differing views on these issues can be found in reports of the meetings of local organizations such as the Singapore Women’s Council, Singapore Family Planning Association, and the Professional Women’s Association; speeches of leaders such as Seow Peck Leng and Shirin Fozdar; letters to the editor in Singapore newspapers; and responses from a variety of community representatives. (See Figure. 3) Of course, many other issues also animated Singaporeans during this period—working conditions, race relations, living standards, political independence, and others, and students’ understanding of each of these will be deeper and more meaningful if they have a change to engage with the words (and images) of people at the time. Sources of evidence on these topics can be found in archives such as Singapore’s National Library Board newspaper search (http://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/newspapers/), the National Archives of Singapore (http://www.nas.gov.sg/), and the Singapore Memory Project (https://www.singaporememory.sg/).

Reaching conclusions from such evidence necessarily requires that students evaluate the sources they encounter. The issue is not (as many students mistakenly assume) a matter of a source’s “reliability”; no one created these sources in order to fool students or historians of the future. Instead, with careful guidance from their teachers, students should consider what they can and cannot conclude from a given source, and how to use a set of sources to reach answers to their question (as historians do). If a newspaper reports the speech of a leader, it is almost certain that such a speech took place; but students have to consider how the context, and the social position of the speaker, affected how the speaker represented the topic, as well as what decisions the newspaper may have made about what to include. We cannot conclude from a single speech or other response what “all Singaporeans” believed, nor what members of any community within Singapore thought. But by drawing together a variety of pieces of evidence, from different sources (and different kinds of sources), students can reach some tentative and qualified conclusions about the range of ideas that were part of the struggle over women’s status or other issues in the 1950s—and this is precisely what historians do.

Using sources as evidence to reach conclusions about historical questions is important not only because it mirrors the work of historians. It is more fundamentally important because it helps students develop an understanding of what knowledge is—not only historical knowledge, but all empirical knowledge. Our understanding of the past, like our understanding of the social and natural worlds, is always an interpretation of the evidence we encounter. The conclusions we reach about history are never certain, and they do not proceed from any direct access to the past; instead, their credibility depends on the extent to which they are based on a range of available sources and on how well the usefulness and limitations of those sources have been evaluated. If students do not understand this, then they will not understand the nature of history (or of any subject; and they can only understand it by taking part in the process of historical inquiry themselves.

An Inspiring Quote

"[Open-mindedness] includes an active desire to listen to more sides than one; to give heed to facts from whatever source they come; to give full attention to alternative possibilities; to recognize the possibility of error even in the beliefs that are dearest to us."

~ John Dewey, How We Think

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