Identifying point of view and perspective in primary sources is one of the most important and fundamental historical thinking skills, as well as a major component of the Common Core Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies (RH 6: Identify aspects a text that reveal an author’s point of view or purpose.) For modern history, we often have two or more primary sources from different points of view addressing a single issue. However, for earlier periods of history, the volume of surviving primary sources is much lower, the gaps between sources are greater, and sources that do survive often express only the hegemonic point of view. In 6th- and 7th-grade world history, therefore, it is more difficult to find sources that allow students to identify point of view.
Another issue is the strangeness of world history sources; when 12-year-olds reads excerpts from the Analects of Confucius, they encounter an unfamiliar style of writing about unfamiliar content on a subject that does not relate to their experience. They can identify the point of view as Chinese, old, and male, and conclude, “That’s what they believed in those days.” That’s as far as their analysis of perspective goes.
I make no argument against having students analyze the Analects, and it is a considerable achievement to have young students read primary sources and think about the differences between older belief systems and their own assumptions. But moving students beyond surface perception of point of view is a worthwhile goal as well, when there are sources suitable for deeper analysis by young people.
For the Sites of Encounter in the Medieval World unit, one of the two new History Blueprint units we are designing this year, we have one type of source that lends itself to deeper analysis – travel narratives. The theme of this 7th-grade unit is the interconnections of the medieval Afroeurasian world, and it is built around distinct “sites of encounter,” mercantile and cultural entrepôts where people from different cultures exchanged products, technologies and ideas. One of the sites is Quanzhou, a port along China’s southeast coast, which was visited by two of the most famous travelers of the medieval world, Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta.
Here is some of what Marco Polo had to say about Quanzhou (which he called Zaiton):
“At the end of the five days’ journey lies the splendid city of Zaiton, at which is the port for all the ships that arrive from India laden with costly wares and precious stones of great price and big pearls of fine quality. . . . And I assure you that for one spice ship that goes to Alexandria or elsewhere to pick up pepper for export to Christendom, Zaiton is visited by a hundred. For you must know that is one of the two ports in the world with the biggest flow of merchandise. . . .The people here are idolaters and subject to the Great Khan. It is a delightful place, amply supplied with all that the human body requires; and the inhabitants are peaceable folk, fond of leisure and easy living.”
Exploring point of view in this passage can be done on multiple levels. On the simplest, Marco Polo was a Venetian describing what he saw on a trip to China. With sourcing exercises, students learn that Marco Polo told his story to Rustichello of Pisa, who added material of his own, and that Polo may not have actually travelled to Quanzhou himself. The teacher might ask students: How could that have affected this passage? Some students might be able to point out the stereotypes (idolators, easy living). On an even deeper level, the students could consider how Polo was an outsider looking at Quanzhou and China through the lens of his own cultural assumptions, and notice his admiration for a culture that was more technologically advanced than his own. They might pinpoint his concern for trade and merchandise in his choice of subjects to describe.
Because the passage focuses on things that a traveler might see, 12-year-olds might be able to imagine themselves looking out at Quanzhou through Marco Polo’s eyes. Penetrating through several layers of analysis gives even these young students a deeper understanding of point of view.
For more on point of view, see our upcoming issue of The Source.
The Travels of Marco Polo, trans. by Ronald Latham. Penguin Classics (London: Penguin, 1958, rep. 1978), quotation from pp. 237-238.
Colombus’s Notes on Marco Polo’s “Le Livre des Merveilles”, Latin edition, 15th century. Sevilla, Bibliotheca Colombina. Copyright expired. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:ColombusNotesToMarcoPolo.jpg.
Marco Polo travelling, miniature from the book, “The Travels of Marco Polo” (“Il milione”), originally published during Polo’s lifetime (c. 1254 – January 8, 1324), but frequently reprinted and translated. Wikipedia Commons. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marco_Polo_traveling.JPG
Marco Polo in Tartar Dress [Marco Polo en costume tartare,] date unknown. Source: Scanné de Coureurs des mers, Poivre d’Arvor, Grevembrock. Copyright expired. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Marco_Polo_-_costume_tartare.jpg
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