Sunday, February 10, 2013

Teaching Primary Sources

One of the many wonderful educators that I follow on Twitter is Mike Kaechele (@mikekaechele), who blogs at the Concrete Classroom.  In a recent blog, he asked three questions about teaching students to use primary source material as opposed to simply exposing them to secondary sources, since that is where they will get most of their information in life from anyway.  Mike asked: 

 Is it our job to teach the skills one needs to be a professional historian or is it our job to expose students to the patterns of history and to teach them to think critically?
Is it being a “literacy snob” to value primary sources over other forms of literacy?
Are we forcing a “skill” on students that is not relevant to them and actually makes the subject boring to students?

Obviously, Mike was not approaching this from a Judaic studies perspective, but as someone who spends most of his teaching time specifically teaching texts, I could not allow the questions to go unanswered.  I replied:

It is not being a snob at all. Someone who learns only secondary material will wind up being generally informed about the topic, based on the interpretations of others. Someone who learns primary sources will gain the ability to form their own opinions on the topic, and will gain the skills to do the same for other issues. That is not training to be a professional historian – that is training to be a thoughtful and responsible citizen.

Pushing the envelope on the issue, Mike wrote back:

Not saying I disagree with you but just pushing back to stretch my thinking. Isn’t most of the information that we come across in life from secondary sources already? For example, most of the news reports are secondary.
I guess the other part of my argument/question is the need for “text based” primary sources as opposed to video/image primary sources. Most primary source stuff today comes in multi-media form from cell phones and interviews.
Few students will actually read a paper, but consume news through online sources which are usually embedded with pics and video. So part of my questions are we overemphasizing text literacy vs. other forms of literacy?
Well argued, but I was not about to allow us to discard primary source reading for the masses all that quickly.  I responded in kind:
Clearly, most of what we read is from secondary sources. However, my contention is that the more one has been trained to also read primary sources, the more one will be able to critically evaluate what he or she reads in the secondary reporting. Reading original sources requires the ability to pay close attention to every detail that is valuable when reading others’ accounts of the original.
I think that the current state of adult Torah learning bears out my point.  Let us accept as a given that most adults are busy and do not have too much time for their own intensive learning, and let us accept that many people try to at least learn something about the parsha (weekly Torah portion).  Within that framework, how many people actually read the parsha and/or some of its commentaries in the original each week, and how many people make use of the ever-burgeoning number of English-language books and internet sites that offer essay-length thoughts on the parsha that do not require one to ever look at the original text?  What are the gains and what are the costs of this trend?  On the one hand, there is no doubt that anything that increases the amount of learning that is taking place is a good thing.  But on the other hand, reading an essay that requires very little active thought on the part of the reader can perhaps provide some enlightenment or inspiration, but rarely encourages a person to think critically, to evaluate the essay-writer's use of the various sources, or to offer their own thoughts on the matter.  All learning, and Torah learning in particular, is animated and expanded by thoughtful and rigorous debate and discussion, and a facility with the original sources is a sine qua non for being able to play an active role in those conversations.
What are your thoughts on this?

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