Primary Sources in Grade School

Primary Sources in Grade School


Trinitarian Theology, Egyptian Icons, and Capable Fourth Graders

“Take a look at the painting of Jesus Christ posted above. Notice that if you were to draw a line down the middle of the painting, Jesus’ facial and bodily features would look different on the left side and on the right. The painting demonstrates the two natures of Christ – a human nature and a divine nature. (His divine nature is portrayed on the left side with His hand up blessing humanity, and His human nature is portrayed on the right side with a larger, rougher body holding the Gospels.) Do you think the painter of this image would most likely agree with Nestorius, Pope Leo I, or Eutyches’ description of the two natures of Christ? Defend your answer and be sure to include what all three men believed.”

This assessment prompt turned out to be one of my all time favorites. My students had not seen this painting before the assessment, so the creative work of analyzing, summarizing, and connecting was entirely their own. It was given to 4th graders. 

After I passed out the assessment to my students, and they had a few moments to read over the prompt, a young man raised his hand and asked, “Mr. McGee, where is the monastery where this icon was painted?” “Egypt,” I said. He grinned and began writing furiously. His assumption that the icon’s origin in the East implied that the painter was a Nestorian was not entirely correct – but what a question! When I was in 4th grade, I never could have made that connection between the icon’s place of origin and the local church’s Christology, much less been able to answer a test prompt like this at all. 

So, what’s going on here? How can 4th graders actually be expected to competently answer such a question? And if they can, what do the students need to do in the classroom each week to learn and prepare for such a question? My answer: read primary sources. 

In my experience with Classical Christian education, the study of History in the lower grades involves either History cards that present a boiled-down snapshot with key names and dates for memorization or historical overview texts (like Susan Wise Bauer’s The Story of the World) that offer thorough summaries of events and periods in simplified language. These sources are problematic if the study of History is limited to these cards and overviews. 

Here’s how it typically works: A school wants to teach fourth graders about Martin Luther using a history card. On Monday, when they read the card on Luther and the Reformation, students learn that Martin Luther was a German monk who wrote something called the 95 Theses which he nailed to the door of the church in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. In these Theses, he criticized the Roman Catholic church for their corruption, especially the use of indulgences. Behold. Students now know Martin Luther. Can’t you feel it? Throughout the rest of the week they reread this card and memorize the information, filling out worksheets that guide them line by line through the six line card. Then at the end of the week, they are assessed with questions like: In what city did Martin Luther nail the 95 Theses on the door? For what did Luther criticize the church in his 95 Theses? 

My issue with this model is that it is approximately 2 cm deep. Students are only required to learn the most basic, platitudinous “facts” about Luther’s life and then regurgitate cookie cutter answers from the card that they already practiced on the worksheet. Even for fourth graders, this is an overly simplistic, dare I say insulting, model for teaching History. If a student’s study of History is limited to reading these resources they will be sorely short-changed. There is a disconnect between the practice of using overviews alone and a central tenet of classical education. 

Reading a text classically requires a mindset shift that we modern Americans find extremely uncomfortable. Reading classically requires dwelling in and with a text. We enter into a conversation with a text; we bring our assumptions and thoughts into the reading, and the text counters those assumptions, answering or confounding our questions. Texts have the power to move us, to shape us, to convict and inspire. This practice requires what the philosopher Paul Riceour calls “linguistic hospitality.” This is the Biblical concept of humility applied to words, of all things. When someone speaks, in order to hear them and truly understand them, we have to have the patience and self-control to be quiet and actually consider their opinions. Otherwise we are stranded on an island formed by our own limited thoughts. Classicists apply this concept of linguistic hospitality to every area of study. We read Plato, Euclid, Moses, Augustine, Dante, Martin Luther, Kant, and George Washington all with the humility to acknowledge that we need to be shaped by these great thinkers. We shouldn’t open a text like Machiavelli’s The Prince to analyze and condemn every proposition that we don’t like. Rather we should open The Prince willing to discuss, willing to be shaped by it with a linguistic hospitality, even while we hold the sword of Scripture as our defender. 

How does this apply to Susan Wise Bauer? There is a difference between fourth graders dwelling in and with a historical summary, and dwelling in and with the actual artifact. When you want to teach your child about tasty cheeses, do you hand them a Wikipedia article on Cheddar and Gouda? When you want your child to love beautiful art, do you hand them a two-paragraph explanation of Raphael’s ‘The Disputation of the Sacrament’? When you want your child to learn Chemistry, do you merely hand them a textbook and say, “Get to reading!” or do you hand them a textbook, a beaker, some goggles, and point them to the backyard with the chemicals? Learning requires spending time with the actual articles. So when I want to teach my students about Martin Luther, I hand them a copy of the 95 Theses. And we read them together. Believe it or not, fourth graders can understand Martin Luther and can read Luther’s own words! Students can read and wrestle with Luther all week long to actually see for themselves how Luther reasoned, how much vitriol he had for corruption in the church, and how deeply he wanted to be faithful to the Scriptures. 

When I wanted to teach my fourth graders about the Council of Chalcedon,  I handed them passages from Nestorius, Eutyches, and Pope Leo I. We wrestled with Christology for two weeks, and by the end they were able to competently interpret the painting shown above. This method of learning through Primary Sources allows teachers to help students with normative, life shaping questions that are far more than 2 cm deep.

Of course, there are ditches to avoid. First graders cannot work through Luther’s original texts. But they can look at art and listen to great music and study the Scriptures. The goal is not to shove eighth grade material down the throats of fourth graders. It would be unreasonable to expect 4th graders to undertake a graduate level study of Luther or of Christology, but young students can begin dwelling in and with portions of those great texts. They can learn how to take notes and underline and let the text shape them. It is remarkably rewarding to see young students wrestle with texts like this and comprehend them. Students love to be called to something higher. They want teachers to expect real work from them and guide them into intellectual maturity. Should we offer them anything less? 

“No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” – Hebrews 12:11.

-Collin McGee

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