HISTORY IN THREE DIMENSIONS
INTRODUCTIONThe purpose of this package is to present ideas on teaching a "local history" topic. This package contains sample documents taken from the Special Collections Unit of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte, and from other archives as well as a bibliography to direct teachers and students to other sources. We have also included lesson plans as an example of possible uses of these documents.
It is the hope of the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Preservation Foundation and Historic Landmarks Commission and the Mecklenburg County School Board that these suggestions will be useful in your preparations to teach about Charlotte's past. If you or your students discover manuscripts or artifacts that might add to the knowledge of the past, please encourage their preservation. The Special Collections Unit of UNCC will be happy to answer questions concerning preservation of papers and artifacts, or the Historic Landmarks Commission will answer questions on the preservation of buildings.
WHAT IS LOCAL HISTORY?The British have dealt with the problem of teaching local history in schools since the turn of the century. At that time, historians and educators agreed that local history should be taught, but no one could agree on how it should be taught or why. They defined local history as an interesting way of looking at the world. It was "a magazine...of vivid and pregnant illustrations of the general course of national history. "
We still use local history, today, as a way to gain a perspective on the broader, national events. But it has a value in and of itself for a personal, family and community perspective. "Local history is the history of the smaller communities in which all of us live. It may be the history of a town, a rural or suburban area, or a city neighborhood." Local history deals with the people and events we know best.
WHY STUDY LOCAL HISTORY?As we've already suggested, studying local history provides the student with increased interest in the larger subject of history. The student advances from memorizing names; dates and places, to the desire of knowing what was being said about people, places or events. The study of local history gives the student a better sense of realism. It's a body of information that can be relevant to the students' own surroundings. The subject matter of today's schools should not be isolated from the subject matter of life. The community and its institutions can be a laboratory for learning. The whole community provides a sense of immediacy and reality about both the past and the present.
We have to remember that our local communities, familiar buildings, and the land itself are limited and exhaustible resources. Americans sometimes have a tendency to tear down their own surroundings. "One of the worst effects of social and geographic mobility on American character is that it has promoted the habit of tearing up the roots of our surroundings - almost as soon as we have put them down. " The study of local history, then, might encourage preservation. It will make us aware of our own links to the past.
GOALS OF LOCAL HISTORYOne of the immediate goals of local history in the classroom is to directly involve the students. The gathering of data just for the sake of knowledge will not offer the student any sense of involvement. Basically, we would like the student to analyze data with a critical eye and be motivated enough to begin to question that data. To help in this process, we need to introduce new ways of thinking about data, as well as some new terminology.
When an event occurs, usually an observer records the event or discusses it with another person. The way a person pictures an event is called an interpretation. Interpretations are the conclusions one forms from examining available historical evidence. This is where local history is at its best. The historical evidence of various aspects of Charlotte's past is available, thanks to preservation. We get information from available historical evidence, or sources. Sources can be anything from which we derive information. An original source can be historical evidence in the form of a diary, letter, journal, or folklore. Also called a primary source, it implies a direct link from the person or events one is studying. It represents a first-person eyewitness account on which historians base their interpretations, or secondary accounts. Knowledge of the past is a collection of fragments set down by observers, who probably did not, or could not tell everything. Those observers recorded what they thought was significant; in other words, their interpretations. Two people observing an event in history might emphasize different particulars about what happened, and use different "facts" to describe what happened.
Our first problem with available historical evidence is to determine what is available and how it should be used. The student who effectively uses primary sources should know the nature and background of those sources; their physical characteristics and the problems they present. The student will need to be able to select the documents or papers that best serve his purpose. In other words, where did the documents come from? Why were they preserved? Are they fragile or too difficult to read? Who wrote the letters/documents? Under what circumstances were they written? The answers to questions like these could change the students' research and his own interpretations. The student can now begin to read the documents/sources not only for their face value, or the obvious information on the page; but also for the information the document does not intend to give. (Allowing students to examine primary sources for themselves will make them aware that history does not only concern itself with famous people. Reading the diaries and letters pertinent to local history shows that history is made and recorded by average people writing about events in their lives, and how the events affected them.)
There are standard criteria to help the student to decide on the usefulness or worth of a source. For example, the student should consider the proximity in time and place of the observer to the event; the impartiality of the observer; and the competence of the observer. We should always try to approach any source with the knowledge of the author's prejudices, and our own prejudices. We should encourage the students to ask questions. In history, we keep asking and answering questions about our past activities so that we can ask better questions relating to the present and the future.
Finally, as teachers, we should remember that we are training future citizens, not necessarily future professional historians.