Send Me Historical Documents!

I have decided to produce a home school high school curriculum. The wonderful new digital technologies make this possible. I can deliver an entire curriculum on a DVD that costs me three dollars to send out the door. These digital technologies have decentralized the production and distribution of information. This process will not be reversed. Why not take advantage of it?

I will write the history and social science courses.

In the field of history, the crucial intellectual task is the historian’s interpretation and assessment of documents of the era or event in question. This is why I am writing this article. I plan to tie my history curriculum to historical documents. Virtually all high school history courses are based on narratives, called textbooks. Mine will not be.

This is a call for documents. If you think there are source documents that are crucial for the correct understanding of history — ancient Greece and Rome, Europe, or the United States — send me a reference (better yet, a web link) and a brief description of why you think this document should not be ignored. Send them to garynorth@garynorth.com.

WHAT HISTORIANS DO

The discovery of a collection of previously unknown documents is a wonderful event. It is the dream of every young historian who wants to make a reputation for himself on the cheap to discover such a collection, which will throw new light on some event, which then forces the history guild to accept his interpretation, based on the new documents. This rarely happens, however.

The main task, day by day, of the movers and shakers in the historical guild is the interpretation and assessment of previous interpretations and assessments, with a few extracts from long-known archive collections of letters and other sources. “Look what I found!” This really means, “Look what I have dreamed up to explain some event, supported by obscure documents that were never worth citing before.”

What future historians will do to locate private letters is a mystery. After e-mail arrived, most people stopped writing paper-based letters and storing copies. Problem: hard drives die or are tossed out. All the email copies on them are lost.

Most familiar interpretations remain accepted by most historians for a generation or more, especially if the interpretation buttresses the State, which pays most of the bills in education. For example, interpretations of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Presidency have not changed significantly since 1945 or even earlier. We have seen only one book that is hostile to both his domestic economic policies and his foreign policies: John T. Flynn’s The Roosevelt Myth, published in 1948, which was insufficiently footnoted and was not written by a professional historian. The historiography of Abraham Lincoln is an even better example. In five haystacks of pro-Lincoln books, the one comprehensive anti-Lincoln needle was written by an economist: The Real Lincoln by DiLorenzo.

Other interpretations get modified, though not entirely rejected. The historiography of the American revolutionaries of 1770—1788 is an example. Almost no American historian is completely hostile to the event, but individuals of the era, except for Washington (saint) and Burr (sinner), come in and out of favor. Even Franklin has a few detractors, most notably Cecil B. Currey, whose systematically ignored and otherwise panned book, Code 72, shows that Franklin was an agent for the British while he was in France. “Code 72” was his code name in the British intelligence system.

Over time, old interpretations do get rejected. This process we call “revisionism.” The best American example of revisionist historiography that remains revisionist is this historical question: “Did Roosevelt know that the Japanese were about to attack in December, 1941?” The lines were drawn by 1946 and have not changed. The revisionists have not persuaded textbook committees that the answer is “yes.”

I am a revisionist with respect to entry into America’s wars. I do think a case can be made for the French and Indian War (1757—63), but Lew Rockwell may yet talk me out of it. Besides, in 1757, there was no America. It was Brits vs. frogs, with the redskins divided. I suppose some Native American historian would call it the Iroquois-Algonquin war.

PRIMARY SOURCE DOCUMENTS

There are many advantages of having high school students read lots of primary source documents. Here are a few of them:

They learn how to read more carefully. They learn that earlier generations were expected to read carefully.They learn how complicated the past was.They learn how difficult it is to unsort past events.They learn that historians have distorted the past.They learn that there is revisionism still to be done.They learn to recognize contemporary con jobs by the media.

As an example of what I intend to do, I will assign many of the Federalist papers in a one-semester course on the American Constitutionalism. I will also assign an equal number of anti-Federalist papers. This is never done in high school or college courses. I have a Ph.D. in colonial American history. In no class that I took was a single anti-Federalist paper ever assigned. A complete scholarly collection did not become available until the University of Chicago published an expensive set in 1981. Yet today, they are on the web for free.

I will offer my comments in the form of bracketed, indented paragraphs within each document. The historian must interpret. He selects documents selectively. An interpretation governs this selection. There is no escape from interpretation. But a student is less likely to be deceived if he can read the actual document. Every student is vulnerable to an expert’s explanation, but not nearly so vulnerable as he is to an explanation without the document. He can always think to himself, as he reads a comment, “That’s not what I think this document says or means.”

I think a good exercise would be to assign several Presidential inaugural addresses. Within each address, I will add notes on whether the President did or did not follow through on a particular promise. This is a strategy called “let their words speak for or against their deeds.” This would be easy to do with almost any politician who gained enough influence to be remembered.

DOCUMENTS VS. TEXTBOOKS

The historian’s narrative ties events together for a student. Textbooks are written in order to convey the historical guild’s most conventional opinions to students. Mostly, this is an exercise in State-funded indoctrination. It has some vague effect on students’ thinking, but only vague. The historical specifics are forgotten. Memories fade fast after a final exam.

It is by repetition, year after year, that most ideas are imparted to the vast majority of students. This is why the home school movement is such a threat to the State. It removes students from the tax-funded indoctrination program of constant repetition.

There is something else on the side of document-based education. A textbook is a committee-screened effort. This makes textbooks boring. This is true of the best of them, such as Thomas Sowell’s textbook on economics and Robert Nisbet’s textbook on sociology. This is why nobody goes back to re-read his old college textbooks. High school textbooks are turned back in and forgotten.

In contrast, some people may occasionally go back to read a poem or a short story in one of the many Norton Anthologies of literature. (The profits on this series are astronomical.) Document collections survive the tests of time; textbooks don’t.

I recall clearly my first reading assignment in my freshman political science course. That was in 1960. It was an extract of the Putney debates of 1647—49. These were the debates in Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army in Britain. It was a debate between Ireton, Cromwell’s son in law, and Rainsborough, a Leveller (democrats, not communists). Ireton argued for the property qualification for the vote. Rainsborough argued for the right to vote based on residence, since males should have the right to say who should represent those who will vote on laws that will affect every resident. It was a debate over representation and citizenship. The same debate goes on today. I never forgot that assignment. (The papers of this debate were first published in 1938, almost 300 years after the debates took place: Puritanism and Liberty, edited by Woodhouse, who made his reputation with this collection of long-forgotten documents.)

I do not recall anything else I read in that class — surely not the textbook.

As examples of first-rate website source collections, see the sites created by Rutgers historian Paul Halsell. Here is his medieval site. The links to his other sites are at the top of the home page.

For American legal and diplomatic history, nothing matches Yale University Law School’s Avalon project.

We need more of these sites. Skilled amateur historians can scan the documents and create such sites. Professional historians will become dependent on them. Almost nobody enjoys doing this kind of grunt work. He who will do it will help shape future interpretations merely by making life easier for the professionals.

How do you think the New York Times became “America’s newspaper of record”? First, by producing an annual index/book of every article published in the newspaper. Second, by making available a microfilm collection of the newspaper for university libraries to buy.

CONCLUSION

If you think a document absolutely must be included in the program, let me know. If it is long and only one section is suitable for one day’s assignment (no more than five consecutive pages of print-outs of web screens), direct me to that section.

Think of each document as vote against the next bond issue for your local public schools. I can use lots of them.

January 21, 2006

Gary North [send him mail] is the author of Mises on Money. Visit http://www.garynorth.com. He is also the author of a free 17-volume series, An Economic Commentary on the Bible.

Copyright © 2006 LewRockwell.com