What are the best pedagogical, most important, non-western primary sources to teach.

Jeremy Greene's picture

I am listing below the 50 "Suggested Primary Sources for World History" by the newly revised Massachusetts History and Social Science Framework.  For the most part I think the creators were aiming for the 50 most important documents with two that are for teaching the Holocaust - the Lodz Ghetto photographs and video testimony of survivors.  The creators also decided to keep many of the documents focused on individual liberty in the 20th Century - this was the major focus of documents in the last version of the standards.  (NOTE: In the original - see link at the end - all the documents have a short description of what the document is and nearly all have a link to the document on-line.  I have kept a few.)

Quick analysis - following my previous threads the sources are overwhelmingly, almost exclusively what could be considered Western Civ - to be fair the grade 6-7 are more of a geography course with ancient western civ. - but the grade 9-12 course is called World History I+II.   I am also interested in the lack of art, visual and video sources in the list.

So Questions:

1) What do you think of the list below for the 50 most important primary sources for world history?

What documents would you add for the following purposes:

2) Pedagogical?  (Documents that are great to teach with)

3) Non-western and/or global?  (would be nice to add 50 non-western documents to suggest to the mostly 50 western documents.

Grades 6-7

https://www.ancient.eu/gilgamesh/ article on Gilgamesh with maps and photographs and link to 10-minute video animation; http://www.aina.org/books/eog/eog.pdf  full text of the Epic illustrated with photographs of Assyrian sculpture First recorded epic, includes an account of a great flood similar to that in the Bible  

  1. Epic of Gilgamesh (c.2150-1400 BCE) 

https://www.ancient.eu/article/68/hammurabis-code-babylonian-law-set-in-stone/ article with photograph of stone sculpture showing Hammurabi from the Louvre; text alone: http://avalon.law.yale.edu/ancient/hamframe.asp First recorded set of laws and often compared to the Ten Commandments of the Bible and/or the Egyptian Negative Confessions  

  1. The Code of Hammurabi (c. 1754 BCE) 
  1. The Egyptian Hymn to the Nile (c.2100 BCE) 

A list of sins that the speaker had not committed; an indication of the cultural values of the Egyptians similar to the Code of Hammurabi for the Mesopotamians, or the Ten Commandments for the ancient Israelites 

  1. The Egyptian Book of the Dead, Negative Confessions (c.1570-1069 BCE) text and article with illustrations: https://www.ancient.eu/The_Negative_Confession/; text alone: http://www.mircea-eliade.com/from-primitives-to-zen/110.html 


Code of religious commandments often compared with the Code of Hammurabi or the Egyptian Negative Confessions; background and analysis: http://www.bibleodyssey.org/en/passages/main-articles/the-decalogue  

  1. The Torah (first five books of the Bible), Exodus, Chapter 20, the Ten Commandments  (c.600 BCE, based on earlier oral tradition) 

Central texts of Hinduism; hymns  

  1. The Vedas: The Rig Veda (c.1500-500 BCE)   https://www.ancient.eu/The_Vedas/ article and excerpts; text alone: http://www.sacred-texts.com/hin/rigveda/ 
  1. Homer, The Iliad and The Odyssey (c. 800 BCE based on earlier oral tradition) 
  1. Confucius, The Analects (thought to have been compiled in the 5th century BCE, completed in a final form in the 3rd century CE)  

Central text of Buddhism, relating to the cycle of human life and suffering 

  1. Buddhism, the Four Noble Truths (c. 500 BCE) https://www.ancient.eu/Four_Noble_Truths/ 
  1. Thucydides, History of the Peloponnesian War (431 BCE) 
  1. Plato, The Republic (360 BCE) 
  1. Aristotle, Politics (350 BCE) 
  1. Julius Caesar, War Commentaries (58-47 BCE) 


Key text for Christianity of Jesus’ philosophy; for analysis and interpretation see http://www.bibleodyssey.org/passages/main-articles/sermon-on-the-mount    

  1. The Bible, New Testament, Gospel of Matthew, Chapters 5-7: Sermon on the Mount (c. 80-110 CE) 


Grades 9-12


6th-14th Centuries 

  1. The Code of Justinian (535 CE) 
  1. Selections from the Qu’ran, 1, 47 (609-632 CE) 
  1. Pope Urban II Speech at the Council of Clermont (c.1095) 
  1. Magna Carta (1215) 
  1. Ibn Battuta, The Rihla (1354) 

16th-17th Centuries CE 

  1. Machiavelli, The Prince(1513) 
  1. Leonardo da Vinci, Notebooks (c. 1508) 
  1. Bartolomé de Las Casas, A Short Account of the Destruction of the Indies (1552) 
  1. Bernal Diaz del Castillo, excerpts from The True History of the Conquest of New Spain (1576) 
  1. English Bill of Rights (1689) 
  1. John Locke, Two Treatises of Civil Government (1690) 

18th-19th Centuries CE 

  1. Charles de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws (1748) 
  1. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Social Contract (1763) 
  1. Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations (1775) 
  1. National Assembly of France, “The Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen” (1789)  
  1. Mary Wollstonecraft, Vindication of the Rights of Women (1792) 
  1. Karl Marx, Friedrich Engels: The Communist Manifesto (1848) 

Essay on the importance of personal liberty, social liberty, and freedom of speech  

  1. John Stuart Mill, On Liberty (1869) http://www.bartleby.com/130/ 

20th-21st Centuries CE 

  1. The Treaty of Versailles (1919) 
  1. Sun Yat-Sen, The Principle of Democracy (1924) 
  1. Erich Maria Remarque, Excerpts from All Quiet on the Western Front (1928) 
  1. Adolf Hitler, Excerpts from Mein Kampf (1925)  


Nazi propaganda film  

Note: Items 30 and 31 address anti-Semitic Nazi propaganda; excerpts need to be carefully curated and well-framed by the teacher.  They are included for the purposed of illustrating Nazi fascist ideology  

  1. Leni Riefenstahl, Triumph of the Will film (1935) 


Photographs of the Lodz Ghetto in Poland under German rule in World War II, liberated by Russian troops in 1945 

  1. Henryk Ross, Photographs of the Lodz Ghetto, a Collection of Holocaust Photographs (1939-1945) 


Videotaped interviews with survivors of the Holocaust in the United Kingdom, c.2010 

  1. Holocaust Survivor Stories (20th century) 
  1. Neville Chamberlain, “Peace in Our Time” (1938) 
  1. Winston Churchill, “A Disaster of the First Magnitude” speech (1938)
  1. Franklin Roosevelt, First Annotated Typed Draft of War Address (1941) 
  1. Winston Churchill, excerpts from “The Iron Curtain,” speech (1946)
  1. Joseph Stalin, “Response to Churchill’s Iron Curtain Speech”(1946) 
  1. United Nations, “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” (1948) 
  1. Mao Tse-Tung Sayings and political philosophy of Chinese Communist leader   
  1. Nelson Mandela, “I am prepared to die” statement at the Rivonia Trial (1964) 
  1. Vaclav Havel, “The Power of the Powerless,” essay (1978) 
  1. Lech Walesa, Nobel Peace Prize Lecture (1983) 
  1. Malala Yousafzai Nobel Peace Prize speech (2014) 



The following are from the World History II scope and sequence from the new - January 11, 2018 - draft of the "Massachusetts History and Social Science Curriculum Framework" and they are nearly identical to the old standards from 2003.

Link to standards: http://www.doe.mass.edu/candi/StandardsReview/hss.html 

Link to public comment: http://sgiz.mobi/s3/Public-Comment-Draft-History-and-Social-Science-Framework-2018



In my own classes, I teach without a narrative textbook, but rather with the collection of sources by Andrea and Overfield, The Human Record. On balance, they have a number of good sources that, for the most part, reflect a good cross section of global history. Teaching Qianlong's reply to king George's request to open trade is always fun. I like to emphasize the idea that pretty much every empire in human history believed that it was the center of the universe and the pinnacle of civilization, and in the McCartney mission (particularly the issue of the kowtow), you have a clash of two empires who see the other as barbarians.

That list of course lacks even the pretense of being world history--it looks more like the older view of Western Civ that (in the tradition of James Henry Breasted) sees ancient Mesopotamian civilization as part of Western history (which is fine, but then Islamic history should also be part of the West).

My suggestions (weighted heavily towards the Islamic world, Central Asia, and China):
Ibn Khaldun's Muqaddimah (late 1300's)
This is my first, second, third, and fourth choice. This text is great for world history because you can ask the students to try to apply his model of dynastic change to any number of frontiers or conquest situations--the Roman frontier in Germania, the Huns/Xiongnu and the Tang dynasty in China, Cyrus the Great's conquest of Mesopotamia & Egypt, and then Alexander's conquest of the Persian Empire... and see how well it fits. Which groups would he have classified as "bedouins" and which groups as "sedentary"? To what extent were social prejudices towards cultural Others and concepts of 'the barbarian' in his time & place similar to those in other contexts? When & where does his prediction about the natural lifespan of dynasties hold? When & where does the direction of conquest get reversed? I'm hard pressed to think of any single historical document (Western or non-Western) that could be used to generate so many productive questions across so many different regional contexts.

As a document of its own time & place, the Muqaddimah is important not so much because of its influence (although it was influential), but, perversely, because the theory itself was not that innovative--it reflected medieval Islamicate conventional wisdom about history, society, ethnology, &c., which he converted into a formal scientific theory. So it's not only an important scientific artifact of cosmopolitan Mamluk Cairo, it also offers a window on how the intelligentsia of the Islamic world saw their own place in history.

some others:
Mas'udi's Meadows of Gold (early 10th c.)
writings of Zhu Xi (major figure of Neo-Confucianism)
Sa'di's Golestan (13th c.)
Rumi's Masnavi (13th c.)
the Secret History of the Mongols
Rashid al-Din's Compendium of Chronicles (early 14th c.)
the Ming Code (late 14th c.)
when it finally gets translated, the Khataynameh (Book of China) (this text did not have exceptionally great political/cultural impact, but it is of great interest as a record of world-historical developments that high school world history students would be able to identify--the increasing importance of gunpowder weapons, Ming-era commercial expansion, displacement of native peoples and early colonization, absolutism, bureaucratization...)
the Akbarnameh (about the Mughal emperor, Akbar I)

I can see why they included Ibn Battuta's travelogue and not Marco Polo's Description of Asia, but the latter was undoubtedly a more widely-read, more historically consequential document. There's no way students will have enough time to read enough of Ibn Battuta to get more of a picture of the world than they would get simply by studying the places he visits as a series of separate topics. It's one of those books where the whole text itself as an artifact is more interesting than the actual content. The most interesting thing about it would be a table (or more precisely, enumeration) of contents; I'd assign that and maybe a couple pages from the text.

The following are texts that are historically important (even more so than the ones listed above), but would be almost unreadable and unteachable for high school students, because they are simply too dense, complicated, &c.; but I'd want students to know about them:
Ibn Arabi's Futuhat al-Makkiyya
various writings of Islamic lettrists ('kabbalists'), and their later Italian Renaissance counterparts
"" of Wang Yangming

Also, perhaps paintings and plastic arts should be considered historical documents as well? The paintings of the Italian Renaissance, the Timurid 'renaissance' of Central Asia, as well as Safavid Isfahan and the Mughal Empire (16th-18th c.); surely late imperial Chinese landscape painting should receive some attention, as well as Chinese porcelain and textiles. If we're going to teach commodities like coal, rubber, cotton, &c. for the early modern period & industrial age, then I'd want to say something about commodities in earlier periods as well. And porcelain and textiles can be analyzed as both commodities and 'texts'.



Once again, the issue of the West versus Global seems to occupy the space in the discussion. I have no problem with Jeremy's list here. It almost seems astoundingly obvious that much of what is on it still constitutes what it takes to be aware of the intellectual and social traditions and issues that have shaped and still do shape much of our culture. (And by "our" I mean more than the West even in this modern era.)

Nevertheless, if we are talking about using primary sources in historical inquiries, I do not see much use in lists of these sorts. For students to engage with primary sources as historical evidence, they need to use them to address specific historical problems. This means they need secondary source contextualization to make clear what the problem to be addressed actually is. Then they need sources that provide evidence for or against some claim about that problem. In that way, anything at all may be a valued source - a letter, a diary entry, an artifact, an official announcement by the emperor, a rock inscription by Ashoka, Pegolotti’s Merchant Handbook's description of trade along the Silk Routes - heck, even (if properly contextualized!) the grocery list from A Canticle for Leibowitz: "pound pastrami, can kraut, six bagels–bring home for Emma.”

Seriously, the task of teachers is to select the most useful and easily accessible (in language) sources relevant to the historical question posed. In the Internet age, there are a ton of them out there. But believe me, I know, it takes work to make them available to students. Nevertheless, I also believe this is the correct issue to raise with respect to using primary sources.

Thank you again for your replies on this thread. Kaveh Hemmat thank you for your suggestions. I will look into the ones that I don't know as well as I should.

Although I strongly disagree with Jonathan Burack that these 50 would make an appropriate list for world history - without many other documents as some have listed, such as the Muqaddimah. I actually have no problem having these documents as long as they are part of a longer list.

To further clarify the list, the documents are not just listed in the Framework as an appendix, but are embedded in the standards. And the standards do have questions to consider. For instance: What were the causes and consequences of the 20th Century's two world wars?

So my primary purpose is not to replace the primary sources listed with global, non-western sources. But to add to the list with sources that are global and non-western. Furthermore, to try to get some sources that are not text based. And just others that are great for teaching.

Here is a list I have started of some sources that I would think should be included and some that I think are great for teaching and learning purposes. I have not separated them. (Note: most of my teaching is focused on 1750-present)
1. Kilwa Pot sherds: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/objects/1HzhZH2YTMWUgqXXFvhAeQ
As has been discussed here, the 100 Objects of the British Museum are often quite useful for teaching: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ahistoryoftheworld/about/british-museum-objects/
2. I agree with the Letter from Qianlong to King George (I recommend John Watt's play on the mutual mis-readings of each other's diplomacy here: http://chinasince1644.cheng-tsui.com/sites/chinasince1644.cheng-tsui.com... - I believe that this play could work in a college class.)
3. Jamaica Letter
4. Responses to European imperialism by Africans is a nice set of sources: https://secure-media.collegeboard.org/apc/ap09_frq_world_history.pdf
5. 21 Demands of Japan to China
6. Photographs of Sepoys in WWI Mesopotamia
7. May 4th protesters photographs
8. Bandung Conference Opening Statement video: President Sukarno Opening Speech at, the Bandung Conference, 1955, Indonesia
9. Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. Selections of the Vietnam Constitution are useful too.
10. Bob Marley concert in Zimbabwe April 18, 1980 - video/music
11. Tiananmen photos and videos 1989 - Tank Man photos (including Tank Man talking to soldiers in tank to presumably change their minds)
12. To Live - book and/or film - fictional account of living under Mao. Created in 1993. (I do use Qll Quiet on the Western Front in the same way.)

Perhaps I should start a separate thread but I think some of the primary sources should be things or commodities to study. Well chosen commodities like shipping containers, AK-47, cotton, sugar, opium, silk, tea, coffee, silver show a global expanse and welcome comparison among cultures in their use (and non-use).

I certainly would not recommend teaching all these commodities but that teaching of at least one or two commodities - explicitly - should be part of any world history class.

For those looking for "non-western" (here I mean non-European generated) written sources from the Americas, I offer Miguel Leon Portillo's collection _In the Language of Kings_ which contains pre-contact selections from both Nahua and Maya sources translated into English. The collection also contains items from conquest, colonial and modern literature from Nahuatl and Maya society (also translated into English). The modern readings mean you can in use non-European language sources (translated into English) in your modern courses and avoid the impression some students get that the people of the Americas "disappeared" or were "absorbed" because they do not appear in (some of) the textbooks and document readers. The collection comes with pronunciation guides and explanations of the texts that help non-specialists use the texts with undergraduates.