I have to admit something. When I was in high school, and even college, I was never thrilled to do what instructors called "primary source research." I found it intimidating, and often boring. The idea of being forced to read and interpret the dusty tomes of long-dead writers just about put me to sleep.
And now I have to admit something else. I was wrong. As a graduate student, and now as a teacher, I find that primary sources do what Harvard historian Jill Lepore suggests. They "let the dead speak for themselves." In her book These Truths, she goes on to say that, "The work of the historian is not the work of the critic or of the moralist; it is the work of the sleuth and the storyteller, the philosopher and the scientist, the keeper of tales, the sayer of sooth, the teller of truth.” I have found that by using the right sources, and guiding students in a way that helps them hear those voices, primary documents open history up wide.
For example, as I prepare the class plans for my Thematic US History class, I am pulling together some amazing primary sources to illustrate the difference in the way that Orval Faubus (governor of Arkansas), and President Dwight Eisenhower answered the question we are examining in our first unit: who is in charge here? I'm going to ask students to read correspondence between Faubus and Eisenhower surrounding the Little Rock Crisis in 1957, using the actual telegrams the men exchanged (such a great opportunity to talk about changes in communication technology)!
This class has been such fun to create. I can't wait to jump into it with students in August!
Press release from the Eisenhower Library collection.