A Case for the Study of Primary Resources

Greetings from Evangel Classical School!

It’s hard to believe that we’re now but a few days from our follow-up meeting when we look to make the official announcement of our plans for ECS this fall.

So if you  haven’t done so already, please plan to be at the meeting on Monday night, April 30 at 7:00PM at Marysville Seventh-Day Adventist Church to hear more about what’s to come in the fall of 2012.

In previous news posts, we’ve tried to explain what is distinctive about the classical and Christian model.  One piece of the model that I appreciate the most is the commitment to being as true as possible to the various disciplines. For instance, that requires going beyond the memorization of formulae in mathematics, and it involves being unafraid to ask, “But why?” when it comes to history and the Bible.  But also related to history, there is a strong commitment to making use of primary resources.

Any historian will tell you that this is what historians do: they spend as much time as possible examining primary resources in order to get the clearest picture of the period in view.  Contrast this with what many bad historians do (along with many schools and universities): they rely on secondary resources, or another man’s work and explanation of what happened rather than taking a look for themselves.  They end up with interpretations of interpretations.

Now don’t get me wrong; obviously, scholarship has its place.  We value the work of good historians who have themselves examined the primary resources and done much of the legwork to make our study easier.  But we still recognize that the more removed we are from the primary resources, the less likely we are to be accurate in our understanding.  If you’ve ever played the telephone game, you know what I mean.  In a circle of twenty participants, by the time your original message gets back to you, you’re fortunate if the idea is in tact, let alone the words themselves.

Another illustration might be our appreciation for theologians.  We are very thankful for the way many Church fathers and theologians have labored to make the Bible and its doctrines more understandable.  But he is no student of Scripture who only reads the words of men but fails to read the Word of God.  We want to train our students to be able to read the works of theologians and to discern truth from error.  That requires an accurate understanding of Scripture.

As for history textbooks, they are particularly helpful for younger students who are learning how to study.  But as students become able, we want to introduce more and more in the way of primary resources…just as with Scripture.  That is true to the discipline of history, it yields more accurate understanding, and it’s challenging for the mind.

In case you’re wondering why I’ve devoted a news post to this matter, I do so because this right treatment of the disciplines appears to be getting rarer and rarer in our schools.  As a culture, we are about the business of forging lazy learners who would rather get their history from movies or TV, who would rather have a dependable formula whether they understand it or not, or who are satisfied to be able to speak a language without understanding how it’s constructed or where it came from…or where it’s going.

I’ll finish by anticipating an objection: Primary resources are too hard for our students to understand, so studying them is then a waste of time.  Well, we can’t blame anyone for that but ourselves, and we shouldn’t expect that anyone else is going to fix it.  And rare is the student who finds out on his own how rewarding a right treatment of history can be.  If God wills to give us the energy to teach them and grants them the appetite for knowledge, our students will soon be able to read more widely than we can and with greater understanding.  (Think about the possibilities that would bring!) But we cannot expect that will happen if they only read simplified and modernized language and potentially-biased interpretations of history textbook writers.  They must supplement their historical diet with a steady supply of primary resources.

Risus est bellum!