All Sources Are Not Equal

 In teaching my 9th graders in Western Civilization the process of writing a research paper, I like to quote from the Declaration of Independence, a copy of which hangs on my wall. I refer to my hero, Abraham Lincoln, and tell them that his favorite line and the idea which he stated was the bedrock of all his political beliefs was: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ….” In the critical step in the paper-writing process of finding good sources, I proclaim the opposite: All sources are not created equal!

 For many years I would simply try to explain the differences in quality among sources they might see in writing their papers. This approach yielded me only mixed results. While browsing in a book store one day, I stumbled across a young adult book on ancient Greece: You Wouldn’t Want to Be a Greek Athlete, by Michael Ford. It is written in a very light, humorous style at about the 5th grade level and on each page it has text, large colorful illustrations, and caricatures of ancient Greeks—including Pericles.

 I then went to my book shelf to find two other books on ancient Greece that were of higher quality. The next book I used in class was William Harlan Hale’s Ancient Greece, published by iBooks in 2001. I handed this book to a student and asked her to look through it quickly: a table of contents, no information on the author, a few black & white illustrations and photos, no citations, no index, no bibliography.

 Finally, I handed a third book to another student: David Stockton’s The Classical Athenian Democracy, Oxford University Press, 1990. Stockton’s academic credentials were described on the jacket: college professor at Oxford.  It contained a table of contents, citations (footnotes), a bibliography, and an index.

I saw eyes light up. By giving them actual examples of sources with different scholarly levels, I was much more successful in getting them to understand.

The skill of writing a research paper—the correct way—is not a skill solely for history class, for high school, or even for college, but rather for life. No matter what occupation students eventually choose, they will be much better equipped if they know how to write a research paper the correct way. Being able to uncover and evaluate sources, and to select the best ones is an important step in that process.

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