Sources for the History of Western Civilization

To mark the publication of the new edition of Sources for the History of Western Civilization, Volume I: From Antiquity to the Mid-Eighteenth Century, the editor, Michael Burger, provides some background on why he chose to take on this particular project, and why teaching with primary sources is important for the education of today's undergraduate students.

BURGER_SOURCESThe Western civilization readers—and I mean readers of primary sources—that are available for undergraduates make me crazy. First, their selections are short. Very short. Snippets. In ten pages, students might read Homer, Herodotus, Hesiod, Aeschylus, and Aristotle. As the readings whiz by, students have trouble remembering whether Aristotle or Hesiod explained the origins of the gods. Or was it Homer? And with so little to get their teeth into, students close the book without much of a feel for any source in particular.

And those are the least of the problems. Too many source readers pair selections with introductions that constitute pre-emptive strikes on the sources, telling students exactly what the readings show, depriving them of the chance to draw their own conclusions. Yet reading and coming to conclusions is how students learn to identify pertinent evidence in a source and to use that evidence. True, the conclusions might be pretty basic, but that’s to be expected from beginners.

So I have rebelled and put together my own reader: entire sources or at least longer selections. A few short sources, like individual letters, which are good for students to read on the spot in class, if needed. And studiously uninformative introductions, which leave instructors in the driver’s seat regarding how much background students should have and how much leading they need to this or that conclusion.

But why use a source reader (like mine) at all, rather than turn students loose on the many primary sources available for free online? Assigning online sources could save students money and give greater flexibility.

True enough, but a reader has some advantages. In the first place, when it comes to translated sources, most online readings are older and so in the public domain; that’s why they can be put online in the first place. My reader relies on some of the very same translations, thus keeping expenses down. (And many other readers do too, although that’s not always evident in their price.) But I’ve also revised the translations, making them easier for students to read—and sometimes simply more accurate. Consider Samuel Butler’s prose translation of the Iliad. It’s a very usable translation, but suffers from the Victorian habit of rendering all the Greek gods and goddesses with their Roman names (so Jupiter rather than Zeus, Minerva rather than Athena, and so on). That’s not good for students. Moreover, using a reader means having an editor who has annotated the text, providing students with the more specialized knowledge they need to make sense of the sources—without driving students’ interpretation. Online sources are usually lightly annotated, if at all. If you choose to have a reader, make sure the translations are good and that students get the notes they need.

There are other advantages to a reader over online sources. I know that I rarely read text online with the same attention and the same degree of recall as when I read hard copy. And it turns out that most people don’t—or so some studies suggest. So students are better off with hard copy. Moreover, hard copy also means that students can bring the readings to class for discussion, and all literally be on the same page; my students certainly can’t all be expected to bring to class mobile devices on which to summon readings from the aether. And using online sources doesn’t allow students to highlight or make their own notes in the margins—important parts of digesting a source. Online selections come at a cost, just not a financial one.

If you’ve gotten this far, you’re probably interested in using primary sources in teaching Western civilization in the first place. Different teachers use them differently. Vive la difference, I say. In my case, I use the sources as a kind of lab for students. In class I draw all kinds of conclusions about the past, using any evidence other than what appears in the reader. The idea is to model for students how historical arguments from evidence work and to do so by dealing with large themes that both explain the foreignness of the past and how that foreign past produced the familiar present—the students’ present. Students then turn to the sources, and search for evidence to support or dispute the arguments made in class.

This stress on sources is evident in the textbook I wrote for the course. For most publishers, the textbook is the primary text. Source readers often appear to be afterthoughts. Just compare their lengths: big textbooks and small(er) readers. Or compare their editors: big names as authors of the textbooks, and often less well-known names recruited to edit the reader.

I actually wrote my textbook, The Shaping of Western Civilization, to support the source reader—rather than the other way around. The reader came first by several years, and then my publisher asked for a textbook to go with it. After dithering for a couple of years—who really wants to write a textbook?—I wrote a book that is thematically big, in one voice, and models for students how to use evidence. In other words, a lot like my class, although certainly not my class on the page. (And, of course, the textbook comes with countless other virtues, too!) The key thing is that the textbook sets up the sources in the reader without actually discussing those sources. That was hard. Hard not to discuss the laws of Hammurabi when discussing law in the ancient Near East. Hard to ignore my favorite teaching passage from Aquinas when I got to the High Middle Ages. Hard to bypass the “Declaration of the Rights of Man” when dealing with the French Revolution or ignore Mary Daly’s Gyn/Ecology (one of my teaching favorites) when discussing postmodernism and feminism. I could go on. So many of the readings beautifully provide evidence to support discussion in the book, and even give students fodder to attack it. But talking about the sources in the book would ruin them for the reader. So there is a strong relationship between the textbook and the reader—I wrote the textbook with the reader in mind. That relationship is, however, for students to find. And for instructors to decide how much help they need to do it. Yes, many instructors happily use the textbook without my reader. But serving the reader is a big reason why I wrote the book.

Michael Burger is an historian of medieval Europe and the Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Auburn University at Montgomery.

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