Rethinking Primary Sources for Cross-Cultural Interaction in World History: "Standard" Problems and Connected Possibilities

By Pollard, Elizabeth Ann | Social Studies Review, Spring 2010 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Primary Sources for Cross-Cultural Interaction in World History: "Standard" Problems and Connected Possibilities


Pollard, Elizabeth Ann, Social Studies Review


It has become almost cliché to hear pedagogues praising the value of working with primary sources to capture the mystique of the past, to bring history alive, to teach students to think historically, or to do the detective-work of "professional" historians. A veritable cottage industry has sprung up to offer guidelines for finding and using primary sources . ? The "Criteria for Evaluating Instructional Materials," in the 2005 edition of the History-Social Science Framework for California Public Schools Kindergarten Through Grade Twelve underscores the importance of primary sources: Category 1 .5 of the criteria notes the value of primary sources "to present an accurate and vivid picture of the times" and Category 1 .6 elaborates further on primary sources, in particular that they "serve as a voice from the past, conveying an accurate and thorough sense of the period ."2

Yet, how can innovative teachers who are working within state-imposed frameworks and standards move beyond the almost canonical snippets of translated text and snapshots of artwork and architecture included in their (often preselected) textbooks? This article offers ideas for 1) where to find unusual primary and ancient secondary sources, 2) how to challenge the traditional canon of sources, and 3) how teachers can emphasize the world historical connectivity in their choice and integration of sources. Following these steps, educators can transform what is essentiaUy a civilization-by-civilization world historical framework or textbook into a more nuanced, transregional , and connected narrative of world history.

Locating Primary Source Materials

"Teachable documents," even ones that can be accessed in a "hands-on" manner, are relatively easy to come by for U.S. and even modern world history.3 Sixth- and seventh-grade teachers of world history gaze with envy at the lesson plans of their eighth-grade counterparts teaching more recent, localized history and able to draw source materials from the attics of their own families or of their students' grandparents or from taking a walk down to the local graveyard.4 How do world history educators find something new and unusual? It's one thing to encourage students to look for newspapers and magazines from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as part of a primary source project - it's quite another to ask students to look for (or even look yourself while developing a lesson plan) pre-modern sources that could be as diverse as either incantations etched in lead and found in the waterworks of the Roman baths in modern-day Bath, England or massive rock and pillar edicts scattered across the Indian subcontinent.

Although American attics are unlikely to yield any pre- 1500 primary sources, more and more museums with pre-modem collections of interest to researchers, educators, and students of world history are putting their virtual attics on-line in such a way that students can enjoy a handson experience .5 For instance, the website for the Louvre in Paris showcases hundreds of artifacts, along with their "technical information," including the time-period and location from which the object comes, a detailed physical description of the object, how/when it came into the Louvre collection, and photos from multiple angles. For an entry point, in English, visit http://www.louvre.fr/llv/oeuvres/ alaune.jsp?bmLocale=en and under "Curatorial Departments" follow links to Near Eastern Antiquities, Egyptian Antiquities, Greek, Etruscan and Roman Antiquities, and Islamic Art. Each of these categories includes hundreds of items for viewing. The British Museum website similarly provides a searchable database cataloguing 1 .2 million objects from around the world. The British Museum database is available at: http://www.britishmuseum.org/ research/search_the_col lection_database .aspx . Experiment with different search terms to get a sense of how the site works. For instance, a search for 'Roman,' checking the 'images only' box, and limiting the date range from 200 BC to 200 AD, yields nearly 3500 artifacts, with catalog entries similar to those already described for the Louvre. …

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