Reading History (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.3)

Although reading history and reading works of fiction like novels are similar in that both involve reading stories, there is one very important difference: reading history involves reading stories that true. Because of this difference, history should be read differently from other sorts of books you might read. Reading history involves reading carefully. We are trying to get to the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. In order to do that we have to read historical texts and texts about history in a way that lets us notice all of the details and allows us to tell when a source might be wrong or might be leaving out something important. It will be helpful here to recall the three kinds of sources discussed in your previous reading and take a look at an example of each.

A primary source is a historical text written by an eyewitness or someone very close to an eyewitness. These are the texts that get us closest to the actual historical event we want to learn about. Primary sources might be books, letters, or nearly anything else; historians even use pictures students have written on their desks as primary sources! Here is an eyewitness account of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, from a letter written by a doctor to his friend:

That night was the only time that I have been to the Theatre since I came here and then partly to see Mr. Lincoln and Gen Grant.  I took a seat in the dress circle near the Presidents Box.  Saw Booth enter the box   heard the report of the pistol   then saw him jump from the box with his draw[n] dagger and rush across the stage  I immediately ran to the box and there saw the President sitting in the arm chair with his head thrown back   on one side was Mrs. L. and on the other Miss Harris.  The former was holding his head and crying bitterly for a Surgeon while the others there were standing crying for Stimulant water etc not one going for anything.  While going towards him I sent one for Brandy and another for Water, then told Mrs. L. that I was a surgeon.[1]

As you can see, Dr. Leale, the author of the letter in which this paragraph is found, was not only present on the night that Abraham Lincoln was assassinated but was also the first doctor to try to help Lincoln after the President had been shot. You can probably tell that Dr. Leale is very emotional as he writes about what happened that evening. The emotions he is feeling have an effect on how he remembers the events.

Now, let us take a look at a secondary source. This is part of the description of Lincoln’s assassination in a book written in 1995 by David Herbert Donald, a historian:

Though the draperies concealed the President so that he could only be seen when he leaned forward, the Lincolns appeared to enjoy the play. When the actors scored hits, Mary applauded, but her husband simply laughed heartily. A man seated in the orchestra observed that Mrs. Lincoln often called the President’s attention to actions on the stage and “seemed to take great pleasure in witnessing his enjoyment.” Seated so close to her husband that she was nestled against him, she whispered: “What will Miss Harris think of my hanging on to you so?” With a smile he replied: “She wont think anything about it.”

One of the most predictable crowd-pleasers of the play came during the second scene of the third act, when Mrs. Mountchessington, learning that Asa Trenchard has given away his inheritance, denounces him for not knowing how to behave and makes a haughty exit. Asa’s lines read: “Don’t know the manners of good society, eh? Well, I guess I know enough to turn you inside out, old gal – you sockdologizing old man-trap.” The laughter and burst of applause almost covered the sound of a shot in the presidential box.[2]

In these paragraphs, Donald has taken a few different primary sources and brought them together to tell a story that is all his own. He repeats the description of “a man seated in the orchestra,” who saw Mr. and Mrs. Lincoln whispering to each other during the play. He also is able to tell us what sorts of things they were saying to each other. He could not have gotten this information from the man in the orchestra, who would have been down near the stage and not up on the balcony with the Lincolns. Perhaps he read about it in something Mrs. Lincoln herself wrote about that night. He also quotes a line from the play that the Lincolns were watching that evening, a comedy called Our American Cousin. He probably got this information by reading a copy of the script. That is at least three different primary sources that Donald put together in those two short paragraphs. He used these primary sources to make his own story out of them and to write what he believes happened that night. Like a detective, he put together all of the clues and, like a storyteller, he wrote about his conclusions in a way that is interesting and informative.

Finally, we will take a look at a tertiary source. A tertiary source is usually a dictionary or an encyclopedia. In fact, what you are reading right is a tertiary source. These types of sources take the stories that historians write and bring them together to present a very simple version of things that gives just a few facts without much detail. Here is what the Chambers Dictionary of World History has to say about the assassination of Abraham Lincoln:

He was re-elected in 1864; after the final Northern victory he proposed to reunite the nation on the most generous terms, but on 14 Apr 1865 he was shot at Ford’s Theater, in Washington DC, by an actor, John Wilkes Booth, and died next morning. He immediately became a national hero, and is regarded as one of the finest symbols of American democracy.[3]

You may have noticed that the entry in the dictionary is very short and to-the-point. The purpose of dictionaries, encyclopedias, and similar sources of information is not to give you a lot of detail or to provide an entertaining story, but to give you just a few facts to get you started. This is why dictionaries and encyclopedias are okay to begin with but primary sources, the real historical documents, and secondary sources, the things historians have written about those historical documents, are what a person who reads about history should be spending most of their time with.

You will be reading a number of primary and secondary sources in this course, as well as a few tertiary sources. As you read each of these texts, try to figure out what category of sources it fits into: is it primary, secondary, or tertiary? This will help you figure out how to read it. With all of these sources, read carefully. Remember to keep an eye out for detail. Think about all of the things that might have an effect on how the person is telling the story: their emotions and beliefs about it, what they were able to see from where they were, and so on. Keep in mind that everyone, whether an eyewitness or a historian, has beliefs. These beliefs lead them to understand things in different ways. We have to consider the beliefs of the people whose writings we are reading in order to understand them better.

You should also keep in mind that when reading history some of the beliefs you will encounter will seem strange to you. When you read about people who lived a very long time ago in places very far away the way they lived their lives can see like something from another world. In order to understand them, however, we should be careful about judging them too harshly. While we can disagree with them, we should also try to understand why they believed what they did and appreciate those beliefs as one way of living a human life, no matter how different from the way we live ours now.

What is especially important is that you try to bring all of the information from your sources together to be able to tell the story in your own way. This is where being both a detective and a storyteller comes in. Figure out how different facts fit to together and create your own story that you believe is the closest to the truth. Then, tell that story.

 

Review Questions

1.  In your own words, explain how reading history is different from reading other stories.

 

Notes

[1] Charles Augustus Leale to Dwight Dudley, May 28, 1865, Shapell Manuscript Foundation, http://www.shapell.org/manuscript.aspx?earliest-first-responder-report-doctor-leale-abraham-lincoln-fords-theatre-assassination.

[2] David Herbert Donald, Lincoln (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1995), 595-596.

[3] Chambers Dictionary of World History, s.v. “Lincoln, Abraham.”

A Historian’s Job (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.2)

As you might have guessed already, a historian has a very big job. You learned in our previous reading that a historian is someone whose job it is to preserve our heritage and help us remember and understand our past. That is what Herodotus, the first historian, did when he wrote his book. It is what historians still do today. You might also recall from our previous reading that remembering our past can help us make good choices about our future. You might be interested to know that many of our presidents were professional historians, including:

• Theodore Roosevelt
• Woodrow Wilson
• Franklin D. Roosevelt
• John F. Kennedy
• Richard Nixon
• George W. Bush
• Dwight D. Eisenhower

Even those presidents who were not historians were very interested in history. They knew that history contained information that would help them make important decisions about our country. Thomas Jefferson, for example, collected a huge library of books – more than 6000 of them! – and many of these books were about history.

A historian’s job is very important and every time you step into your history classroom you become a historian. We want to do this important job well. Future decisions can depend on what we say about the past. So how do we do it?

In order to be a historian, you have to be part-detective and part-storyteller. You have to be able to piece together clues in order to figure out what might have happened. Once you piece these clues together, you then have to be able to present your ideas about what happened in a way that makes sense and that other people will want to listen to. In other words, you have to be able to tell a good story.

The clues that a historian has to work with include things that archaeologists discover, such as pottery and art. Sometimes these archaeological discoveries are easy to understand. If we find a sword, for example, we can usually be pretty sure this was used as a weapon. Other objects we find, however, might be more difficult to understand. Imagine being a historian in the year 3000. In your time people clean their teeth by using a laser they point into their mouths. Now imagine an archaeologist finds a house from 2014 and discovers a set of toothbrushes. It is your job to figure out what these were used for. You have never used a toothbrush before and do not know anyone who knows how to use it. This might be difficult. Some archaeological discoveries are like this.

A historian’s clues also include maps and the things other historians have written about our subject. The most important clues we use are the descriptions of events we read about in some very old books. You might have seen a detective show in which the detective interviews witnesses in order to find out what happened. A historian’s witnesses might be people who lived thousands of years ago, but we can still interview them! We interview them by reading the books they wrote in a very close and careful way. Sometimes witnesses misunderstand what they saw or even lie about it. We have to be able to compare different witnesses and use our thinking abilities to figure out who is telling the truth. When we do this, we are, in our own way, interrogating the witnesses, even if our witnesses are texts written by people who died a very long time ago.

There are three kinds of texts a historian uses and they are classified by how far they are from the original event we are studying. A primary source is a text that is very close to the original event. In order to be considered a primary source, a text has to have been written by either a witness or someone very close to a witness. For example, if you wrote about a Fourth of July parade you watched you would be writing a primary source. A secondary source is a text that is written by a historian about the primary sources. If a group of your friends went to the Fourth of July parade and each wrote about, then you took what your friends wrote and told your own version of what happened during the parade, you would be writing a secondary source. A tertiary source is what someone writes when they write about what the secondary sources say. Most dictionaries and encyclopedias are considered tertiary sources. They are just summaries of what historians say about something from history.

Bringing together all of the clues and the testimony of the witnesses can be quite a job. What do you do, for example, when there are only two witnesses and they disagree with each other about what happened? What if you find some archaeological evidence that shows that neither one of them is telling the truth? These are the sorts of problems historians have to solve. And this is just the first step in the job of a historian.

Once a historian puts the clues together he has to tell the story. In order to do this a historian has to be someone who writes very well. The ability to write well might be the most important quality of a historian. This means a historian has to have the ability to think and communicate clearly using correct spelling and grammar. A historian also has to make sure he is telling the truth and not just repeating gossip or telling tall tales.

As you can see, being a historian is a job that requires some hard work and a great deal of thought. Historians have to be able to play different roles, being a detective and then switching to become a storyteller, and they have to be able to fill both roles very well. This is the challenge we will take up over the course of your history class.

Review Questions

1. Given what you have already learned about history, why do you think learning about history has been so important to leaders such as the presidents named here?

2. In your own words, explain what primary, secondary, and tertiary sources are.

3. In your own words, explain why a historian has to be both a good detective and a good storyteller.

History and Its Importance (Introduction to Western Civilization 1.1)

Imagine waking up in the desert and not being able to remember who you are, where you are, or how you got there. To find your way home you have to know at least one of those things. Unfortunately, you do not know where home is – or even whether you have one!

This is the situation we find ourselves in if we do not know history. History is like memory, but for a large group of people instead of just one person. The same way that your memory allows you to remember who you are, where you are, and how you got there, history allows us to remember who we are as a family, a school, a state, a nation, or even a civilization. It tells us where we are and how we got here. It also helps us to decide where we want to go.

The historian Edward Gibbon, whom you will read about when we study the Enlightenment, once said “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience. I know of no way of judging of the future but by the past.” We learn through our experiences of the decisions we make and the consequences of those decisions. If I make a bad decision and get hurt because of it, I will know not to make that decision again. Similarly, I know that I want to continue to do things for which I get rewarded. Our memory is what helps us learn from our experiences. We remember what happened to us in the past and we make decisions about our future based on those memories. There is a saying you might have heard: the person who does not know history is doomed to repeat it. In other words, if you do not know what mistakes to avoid and what models to follow, you are not going to make very good decisions.

The first historian was a man named Herodotus. He was a Greek man who lived in 484-425 B.C. You will learn more about him in the section on the Ancient Greeks, but a short passage from his book, The History, might help us now as we try to understand what history is and why it is so important. The first sentence of the first history book written by the first historian is this:

These are the researches of Herodotus of Halicarnassus, which he publishes, in the hope of thereby preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done, and of preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory; and withal to put on record what were their grounds of feuds.

In that one sentence, Herodotus gives us a lot of help in understanding history.

First of all, notice that he uses the word “researches” to refer to his work. People have been telling stories about the past almost as long as there have been people. Those stories have been passed down from grandparents and parents to children and then by those children to their children. Although these stories are interesting and important, and you will learn more about these stories when you read about mythology later, they are not history. What makes history different from just telling stories about the past is that history involves research. Herodotus did not just write down the stories he had heard from his grandma and grandpa. He travelled to different nations looking for old buildings and old books to help him get his information. Historians today do the same thing. There are a lot of great stories in history, but history is more than just stories. It also involves using some detective work to find clues and talk to witnesses to put those stories together.

In this sentence, Herodotus also tells us that he did all of this research for three reasons:

1. “Preserving from decay the remembrance of what men have done.”

To preserve something from decay means that you want to make sure it never goes away. He wanted people to remember the great things that others had done before them.

2. “Preventing the great and wonderful actions of the Greeks and the Barbarians from losing their due meed of glory.”

What this means is that Herodotus wanted to make sure that the “great and wonderful” things people had done were remembered so that we can honor them. If you do something great, like play very well in a baseball game or get very good grades, you want to be noticed for that. Herodotus thought the people he wrote about had done some great things and should be recognized for what they had done.

3. “To put on record what were their grounds of feuds.”

He wanted the people who read his book to remember the reason the Greeks and the Barbarians had fought a war with each other. Here Herodotus is talking about the Greco-Persian Wars, which you will read more about in the section on Ancient Greece.

Herodotus is saying something very much like what we have already said. He wants to give us examples of great men, people who had a great deal of courage and wisdom, so that we can follow their example. He also wants to tell us about the decisions these men made, so we can learn from their experiences. If they made good decisions, we want to try to make the same decisions they made. If they made bad decisions, we want to try to avoid those.

So maybe you are not entirely sure if you are going to like this history thing. It sounds okay, but maybe you like another subject more, like math, science, or – maybe – lunch. History can help you here as well. All of those other subjects have a history. All of the things we know about nature that you will learn about in science class are things that were discovered by the people you will learn about by studying history. Aristotle, for example, was an ancient Greek philosopher who was one of the first people to write about zoology, the study of animals. One of Aristotle’s most important students, Theophrastus, is sometimes called “the father of botany,” which is the study of plants. He is called by this title because he wrote some of the first books on the subject. Much later, two men named Nicolaus Copernicus and Galileo Galilei, both of whom read the books written by Aristotle, would make important discoveries in astronomy, the study of the stars and planets. One of their most important discoveries was that the earth revolves around the Sun. You will read about all four of these people and many more scientists, mathematicians, writers, soldiers, and others as we continue. (Those of you whose favorite subject is lunch will also be happy to know that food has a history, too!)

In this course, we will focus on the history of our civilization, which is usually called Western Civilization. Western Civilization begins with the ancient Sumerians and Egyptians more than 5000 years ago and continues with us today. Many of the things we do every day are part of our heritage as members of Western Civilization. When your parents vote, for example, they are continuing a practice that started with the Ancient Greeks more than 2500 years ago. If you have to take medicine when you get sick, you are doing something that goes back to the Ancient Greeks and that became very important during the period we call the Enlightenment. The architecture and art you see on many buildings in your city might come from the Egyptians, the Greeks, the Romans, or the people of the Renaissance. All of these are things other members of Western Civilization who lived before us have given us. It is our job to learn about these things so that we can contribute our own part when it is time for us to make the decisions.

 

Review Questions

  1. What is history? Answer in a sentence.
  2. In your own words, write a paragraph about why it is important to learn about history.
  3. What is your favorite subject other than history? How do you think history can help you better understand that subject? Answer in a paragraph.

 

Vocabulary Words

 Civilization – a nation or group of nations which share a common culture, government, economic system, language, and/or religion

Heritage – something inherited from one’s ancestors

History – knowledge of the past learned through research