I came across a blog post written by Ted Lienhart entitled, “Characteristics of Historical Thinking.” Here, Lienhart listed fifteen of his favorite history-learned abilities (list provided below). As I read the list, I could not help but think that most, if not all, can be taught and assessed.

Take Lienhart’s first must of historical thinking: the ability to tell the difference between a primary and secondary source. Seems pretty easy to me, but then again I am a historian. Students, however, so often mix the two up and there are instances of murkiness in the primary versus secondary foray. For example, David Ramsay was a terrific historian of his time.  He’s most famous for writing The History of the American Revolution in a two volume set, published way back in 1789. Historians today do not think like Ramsay: his culture, idioms, slang, comport, carriage, mannerisms and etceteras are nearly foreign to us. How Ramsay thought about the American Revolution would then, equally, appear different – certainly out of sync with how we perceive America’s break with Britain today. Obviously, Ramsay’s books are second hand accounts of the war, but how he remembered the war and wrote about the conflict is certainly primary material ready to be devoured.

primary-vs-secondary-sources-1-638So how do we teach this? How do we asses a student’s ability to pick out the difference between primary and secondary sources?

Admittedly, I don’t spend a lot of time on this. In fact, the only true guide I give to students about these differences comes out of me during our first class meeting. The talk is brief. Primaries were written when the said event or trend occurred, whereas secondaries are written interpretations of the primaries. I also point out the online readings. Here, students can access both primary and secondary materials, each under its own headings.

Let’s take a topic like Vietnam, the Tet Offensive of 1968. Here are some examples we can ask students: a New York Times reporter writing from Saigon in February of that year – primary; an article in Time Magazine polling America’s reaction to the offensive – primary; a chapter in a book written by a soldier who was there, but only began writing in 2005 about the experiences he endured, and the book was published in 2016 – primary; a journal article exploring West Wing gossip in reaction to the offensive – secondary; an edited collection of letters from nurses stationed in Saigon neatly organized in a poignant chapter – primary (except for any editorial remarks, additions, and deletions); a Walter Cronkite piece from late February 1968 that used numerous film clips from Reuters, CBS, and NBC film crews in one news segment (ooh, gray area…)


For me it’s getting to the why? Asking students to pick which is which is fine, but asking them why it matters gets to the heart of historical thinking. In the above Tet Offensive scenario, why does it matter where the news clips for the Cronkite segment came from? Does it matter if a soldier’s account about the offensive was written during the week and month in which the offensive happened versus thirty-seven later? Does it matter if an editor removes significant portions of a letter home to parents?

The exercise in the “why” demonstrates the effect upon historical thinking. Again using the Tet: maybe there were film clips not used by Cronkite that tell a different story. The memories of events nearly four decades after the fact may be called into question. An editor’s heavy edit of a letter reflects editorial decisions and are often done for effect; what was cut (and how much) may alter the original writer’s intent, tone, and messaging that we, as historians, are then no longer privy to.

Bottom line: knowing whether a document is primary or secondary is OK, but it’s in the why and the matter of these documents conjoined to the purpose of one’s own research where the magic of historical thinking shines.

Lienhart’s List:

1. The ability to tell the difference between a primary and a secondary source.
2. The ability to “source the source”; that is, figure out who created the source, when it was created, and so on.
3. The ability to obtain information about the authority of the source and to assess that authority in light of other evidence.
4. The ability to set sources in their proper chronological order and to understand why that ordering is important.
5. The ability to construct an original argument based upon evidence from various sources.
6. The ability to recognize the strangeness of the past without being put off by that strangeness.
7. The ability to make comparative judgments about evidence.
8. The ability to recognize what one does not or cannot know from the evidence at hand.
9. The ability to understand that events are understood differently by different people.
10. The ability to triangulate between and among sources.
11. The ability to ask probing questions—not just what happened, but why did it happen this way and why didn’t it happen that way?
12. The ability to recognize the role of causality.
13. The ability to critique evidence both on its own terms and in terms of its value to a larger analytical project.
14. The ability to recognize lines of argument in historical thought.
15. The ability to present the past in clear ways, whether in writing or in other media, saying what can be said and not saying what cannot.”