History Uncovering History

Reading in between sources

Book cover to The Internal Enemy, showing black and white men fighting with swords and hatchets
Image courtesy of W. W. Norton

As part of my summer reading program I recently finished Alan Taylor’s The Internal Enemy: Slavery and War in Virginia, 1772-1832, the winner of this year’s Pulitzer Prize for History I found it worthy of the award: scholarly, insightful, and engaging. As many things do, it got me reflecting on teaching historical thinking. I particularly appreciated Taylor’s very transparent use of sources.  In fact, most paragraphs look like historical thinking exercises in classes, albeit very sophisticated examples of it, as Taylor explicitly supports each claim with source material.  This is typical of how historians construct and order knowledge.  It is a particularly successful example of authentic historical writing with a broad appeal.
Students of history should be reading authentic secondary sources, including the footnotes, to see historical thinking and writing modeled.  Historical thinking is hard, in part because students don’t see much of it.  They might read some primary sources, and they are more frequently exposed to tertiary sources, such as textbooks and History Channel documentaries.  I’m not suggesting students read entire books or journal articles, but they certainly could be using excerpts to build content and procedural knowledge.    Sadly, I don’t see how The Internal Enemy fits into the World History courses that I will be teaching next year. Now I’m looking for engaging works of World History that explicitly model the critical use of sources.  Suggestions?

By Eric Beckman

I am a veteran high school history teacher interested in decolonizing history curricula, anti-racist pedagogy, and e-learning.

Let me know what you think!

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