Thoughts on Learning History From Primary Source Documents

by Roger Bourke White Jr., copyright July 2013


This essay has been inspired by two patterns I have encountered. The first is noticing how many books in the History section at the book store are based on newly uncovered diaries by first-hand witnesses to an event, such as soldiers' diaries discussing a war. The second is that the history course I'm taking at Salt Lake Community College also emphasizes these primary source documents.

This is different than the history learning I grew up with. The books and courses I encountered in the 1960's emphasized "big picture" history. In the case of war stories they were books written by historians, generals and statesmen who explained the circumstances, the goals of both sides, their limitations, and how events unfolded in ways that surprised the participants, and how they reacted to the surprises.

What are the ramifications of this change in historical perspective?

In my opinion they aren't good, and this essay is about why.

Why learn history?

The most compelling reason to learn history has been said in many ways similar to "Those who don't learn history are doomed to repeat it." This particular version is often attributed to George Santayana, a Harvard Professor at the beginning of the 20th century, but many people with a love of history have said something similar. But this is not the only goal. Another is fun story telling, as in telling stories of triumphs and tragedies. Another is to teach morality lessons and propaganda. The first of these, patterns useful in predicting, is of most interest to me these days. So for me identifying new patterns that help my crystal ball gazing is the really fun part.

And for that reason this shift from "big picture history" to "primary document history" is a mystery.

The limitations of Primary Document History

I was a soldier in the Vietnam War. I arrived during the "Counter Tet" campaign. This campaign was undoing the damage done by the numerous surprise attacks of the Tet Offensive launched by the Viet Cong (VC) and North Vietnam Army (NVA) during Vietnam's Tet (New Year) holiday of January 1968.

I was there... but in truth I know little about what happened. Why? Because Counter Tet happened all over Vietnam, and I was stationed in just one place, and I was very busy learning the ropes. I can tell you first hand about what happened at Hotel 3 heliport, nestled between two runways of the big Tan Son Nhut Air Base near Saigon, but that's it.

The point is: If I want to tell you about Counter Tet, or the Vietnam War, I have to read about it, just like everyone else. (That said, if you are interested in learning more about my experience there -- reading the primary source document I created and seeing some on-the-spot photos I took -- check here: My Little Chunk of Vietnam (68-69)).

This limited viewpoint is an intrinsic weakness of getting history from primary source documents: They are presenting the small picture. The picture can be intense and highly emotional, but it can also be seriously flawed. Let's look at diaries as an example:

o As mentioned above, if the writer is a cog in the machine, you're going to get the cog's point of view.

o If the diary is written years or decades later, memory is going to tidy up events to better match the writer's personal agenda.

o The diary can be a complete fabrication -- written by an imposter to promote an agenda. If a diary is "discovered" decades later in an attic or at a yard sale or some such. Watch out!

An example from my history class: The teacher pointed us to to view a primary source document about the Indian Removals of the 1830's. One of their showcase documents is an account written by John G. Burnett an army man who was part of the program. So far, so good. But...

o This was written by him when he was 79 to entertain his family on his 80th birthday. This is sixty years later and written to wow the grand kids.

o He was a private at the time of the removal, and a mountain man before that.

This writer's circumstance sets the mood for the result: It's describing melodrama. But the site loves it as a primary source!

So learning history from diaries always has a big weaknesses in scope, and can easily have a lot of weakness in veracity. Letters, editorials and proclamations from the time of the event have the weakness of being written with an agenda in mind, and once again, only the small picture available. Conclusion: all primary source documentation must be read with skepticism. And, they aren't going to be about the big picture.

Why is the big picture important?

The big picture is where the useful patterns show up. Human events happen to people, but the tide of history happens to communities. An example of getting this wrong is paying attention to what I call "gossip history". Another example from my history class: Robert Penn Warren in his book "Jefferson Davis Gets His Citizenship Back (1980)" speculates on what would have happened if Abraham Lincoln's family had moved south from Kentucky and Jefferson Davis' family had moved north? Would they have switched roles? Become opposite presidents? Would The South have won the war?

My answer: No, there would be little difference because the fates of Lincoln and Davis are pebble-size splashes in the big river of destiny. The names in our history books would change, but little else. And I think it's almost certain that neither Lincoln or Davis would have made it into these alternate history books because both had a whole lot of ambitious and equally capable competitors. Both became legends of our history because of historic accident: They were in the right places at the right times. Gossip history presumes that historic figures are somehow blessed and destined for greatness no matter what their choices -- that these leaders are chosen people. My presumption, based on the big picture, is that someone is destined to be picked for greatness, but you can't pick out who beforehand. The person who becomes great in history books becomes great because they become an icon for an important concept.

The big picture in the case of the Ante Bellum/Jacksonian America that leads up to the Civil War is about changing technologies, changing social structures, and changing demographics. People were using new inventions. Wealth was coming into the hands of new people because those inventions were working out so well. This success liberated both thinking and feet -- people were coming up with thousands of new ideas and people were moving around all over America to experiment with them. It wasn't your granddaddy's America at all! These technological and social changes were both wonderful and deeply scary. It was the scary part that brought about the Civil War, not the impassioned speeches of leaders, or the historic accidents of who became the leaders.

An example of the benefit of getting the big picture

I was teaching in Korea when the 9-11 Disaster happened. It was a jaw-dropper for sure! But I quickly began writing about what would happen. Based on the patterns that I had started identifying in the history I'd read to that date, I had developed a model that I call Panic Thinking and Blunder Reaction. Here is what I forecast at that time: Post September 11th: The American Panic of the 2000's and for more essays following this one over the years, here's the Cyreenik Says editorial index.

This collection of insights is the benefit of learning big picture history.


It is interesting and surprising that the good intention of emphasizing primary source documents has produced the surprising result of turning history into first person story telling -- surprising to me, anyway. The history being taught today centers on stroking the "being there" emotion. As a result much of primary source document-oriented history ends up being melodrama and propaganda. It's not about gaining the big picture, a picture that can be useful as a powerful predictor for what will be happening in our near future. When our predictions are good, we can respond well.

The goal of all our learning is to give us the tools to make our world a better place. For this reason we should be emphasizing big picture history.


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