Historical Sources In The Classroom: Purpose and Use, pp. 6 of 10

Guiding students through this process is obviously complicated and time-consuming. Sometimes students should develop their own questions, and teachers must help them identify questions that can be answered through available evidence. Even if the questions are set for them, teachers have to help students understand what kinds of sources are available to answer those questions, and more importantly, how to evaluate sources in light of the questions. Asking students to critically examine a source in order to determine what can, and cannot, be learned from them is a laborious process, and so is the task of developing supportable conclusions. It is much easier—and more tempting—to simply tell students what happened, or to resort to using sources as illustrations of predetermined conclusions rather than having them reach their own conclusions. But although “telling” seems to save time, it is ultimately a waste of time, because it misrepresents what history is all about. Teachers need not engage students in inquiry for every topic they encounter; however, if teachers never expose their classes to this use of sources, then they are preventing students from understanding the subject meaningfully.

Sources as ends in themselves

Visual or textual interpretation. Some historical sources, such as important works of art, architecture, literature, and so on, are so rich in meaning that we want students to interpret them on their own terms. Such sources could also be used for motivation or as evidence, but on occasion we want students to set aside these external uses and delve deeply into how their creators have structured them and the meanings they aim to convey. Motivational speeches are a prominent example of this use: By examining speeches and writing by inspirational leaders such as Malcolm X (e.g., “The Ballet or the Bullet,” http://americanradioworks.publicradio.org/ features/blackspeech/mx.html) or Martin Luther King, Jr. (e.g., “Beyond Vietnam,” http://www.aavw.org/protest/homepage_king_beyond.html), students can explore how they use evocative language, deeply embedded cultural themes, and a variety of rhetorical devices to engage with their audiences and convey their messages. (By contrast, a policy-oriented speech by a government official may not convey any such richness and would not be appropriate for this use.) Often, such analysis takes the form of a Socratic seminar, a “method of shared inquiry into the ideas, issues, and values expressed in powerful works of art, literature, and music” (Parker, 2003, p. 55).

Similarly, students may examine a painting in order to better understand how the artist has portrayed a person or scene. They can explore how the use of color and texture, for example, affects the feeling that the painting conveys, or how the composition draws attention to particular actions and details. Students studying post-World War II Singapore, for instance, could compare National Language Class (1959) by Chua Mia Tee, and Picking (1955) by Tay Kok Wee. (See Figure. 4 and 5) How do the posture and placement of individuals in the two paintings suggest different moods, and how does the differing use of color contribute to these feelings? Why has Chua chosen to use a great deal of light in much of the painting, while Tay emphasizes darker hues more uniformly? What segments of society are suggested by the dress and appearance of individuals in the two paintings? Given the time period, what is the significance of the questions written on the board in Chua’s painting, and of the economic activities in Tay’s? Even small details can be important: Why might Tay have exaggerated the size of some individuals’ feet?  Overall, what are the artists suggesting about the present and future of Singapore at the time?

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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