My Twitter acquaintance @Fishmath has been lamenting this morning how most people she knows — perhaps all of them — never use any advanced mathematics except to teach advanced mathematics to others. She says it leaves her a little depressed when she discovers that most of the mathematics sites out there can provide people with most of the math they need.
Well, @Fishmath, I’m here to tell you that I’m find the same thing out about history. The number of primary source documents online is skyrocketing — diaries, journals, land deeds, wills. It’s sufficient at this point that I’ve assigned my seventh graders to give a verbal presentation and write a report on one of the people mentioned in the land distribution of Plymouth Colony in 1623. Yes, that Plymouth. Where the Mayflower landed.
Working with primary source documents used to be the purview of college-level courses, and AP classes. The technical material wasn’t available to students — it was too expensive, and the materials languished on library shelves. There was usually a substantial corpus of secondary materials you had to wade through to get to the good stuff, or understand the good stuff.
But it turns out, that’s no longer the case. Like the Mormon ritual of baptizing the dead, the Internet is extending into the past, and bringing forth a range of materials and tools for interpreting the past — and some of our most famous ancestors in the historical consciousness first.
This makes teaching history a lot more complicated. First of all, as I’ve said elsewhere, it complicates the allegedly-pressing need for textbooks. Second, it opens up a a range of stories to students beyond the ones that we think of as ‘normal’ in a history class. And third, it requires me as the teacher to step out of the role of gatekeeper and director — it’s no longer up to me to tell the stories; it’s up to them.
I think my classes are going to be doing a lot more presentations this year, as I find the resources for them to work with online, that they need to tell their own stories.