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People are Fundamentally the Same

Authored By: 
Gabriella Skwara, History Teacher

Why should we study history? There are many potential answers to this question, but one of the most crucial is the way in which history helps us to better understand ourselves by illustrating just how universal our experiences and behaviors are. My favorite way of bringing this fact home is through having students look at primary source documents, and allowing them to figure out for themselves what the documents are telling us.

Document Based Questions (DBQs) are a core element of history classes and tests, and can frequently prove challenging. However, sometimes the meanings are clearly comprehensible at first glance. In Early World History, students get the experience of reading some of the earliest letters available, those from ancient Sumer and Mesopotamia (written around 2000 BCE).  We anticipate that these texts will be incomprehensible from a modern perspective, until we begin reading and students immediately recognize themselves.  A father admonishes his son about being a better student: “Why do you idle about? Go to school...open your schoolbag, write your tablet.” We clearly haven’t learned much in all these millennia. There is rarely a single class where I don’t have to tell a student that their homework (or iPad/ tablet!) should be out and ready to go when the bell rings.

Students are reminded of texts sent to their moms, when an ancient teenager complains to his mother about not getting him the new clothes that all the other kids are wearing. “The son of Adad-iddinam...(has) two new sets of clothes....his mother loves him, while you, you do not love me!” For better or for worse, teenagers and their parents haven’t changed much in 4,000 years. Perhaps even ancient history can, in fact, be relevant.



Louis Cohn-Haft, Source Readings in Ancient History, Vol. 1 (New York: T.Y. Crowell, 1965), 96-97.

Leo Oppenheim, trans., Letters from Mesopotamia, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1967), 84-85.