Barnes, Mary (Downing) Sheldon

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BARNES, Mary (Downing) Sheldon

Born 15 September 1850, Oswego, New York; died 27 August 1898, London, England

Daughter of Edward Austin and Frances Bradford Stiles Sheldon; married Earl Barnes, 1885

An educator and historian, Mary Sheldon Barnes made her major contribution as a pioneer in the use of the source method of teaching history. Her first book was the innovative Studies in General History (1885). In this pioneering work, Barnes dealt with the period 1000 B.C. to 476 A.D. Her primary purpose was to teach the reader how to develop critical ability and to demonstrate how the essence of a culture could best be apprehended by the use of its documents and its art. To achieve this, she offered extracts from historical sources; presentation of basic events and personalities; and use of illustrative extracts, including literary works, art, architecture, and philosophy. She provided questions to guide the student's development in critical judgment, for she was concerned primarily with the student's "self-learning."

In later editions Barnes expanded her scope to include first the barbarian age, then the empire of Charlemagne, and, in more condensed form, the history of Europe up to the late 19th century. For the Carolingian era, she provided illustrations not only of European but also of Islamic life and culture. As for the more modern history, she dealt rather briefly with the French Revolution and Napoleonic era, but gave a more comprehensive account of the spread of Prussian power.

In 1891 Barnes and her husband applied the same source approach in their joint work, Studies in American History (1891). Studies in American History followed the same principles of "training the student to think for himself" and also to "enter into living sympathy with others." (It was, however, designed for younger students than Studies in General History.) The author used primary accounts, arguing "the drama of life is in the sources." Barnes laid out the basis of her method in Studies in Historical Method (1896). She was concerned not merely with the understanding of the past but with developing qualities of mind that would allow citizens to form "independent, unprejudiced judgments as to men's actions, opinions, acts, and social processes" of their own day. In American history she did raise some contemporary issues, such as the problem of immigrant adjustment to America and how "to change them into Americans." But on other issues such as woman suffrage she did not provide information; she only raised questions.

As a proponent of the source method, Barnes made her impact both through the histories she wrote, the accompanying separate teachers' and students' manuals, and her works on historical methodology. Her major educational work, however, probably occurred through the histories themselves. Through her organization and format, as well as the questions and explanatory comments, she communicated directly to the student that the responsibility for learning was primarily one's own. The results of mastery of her method, Barnes argued, would be felt not only in the classrooms but in judgements which the student as citizen would bring to bear on contemporary questions. She sought to promote informed inquiry into public issues and intelligent, critical judgments. With her works Barnes did play an important pioneering role in the methodology of history teaching.

Other Works:

Studies in Greek and Roman History; or Studies in General History from 1000 B.C. to 476 A.D. (1886). Aids for Teaching General History (1888). General History in the High School (circa 1889). Proposal for the Study of Local History (circa 1889). Studies in American History: Teacher's Manual (1892). Autobiography of Edward Austin Sheldon (edited by Barnes, 1911).


Reference Works:

American Women (1897). Dictionary of American Biography. National Cyclopedia of American Biography (1892 et seq.). NAW 1607-1950 (1971).

Other reference:

AH (Oct. 1948, Nov. 1948). Journal of Education (15 Sept. 1898). Sequoia (30 Sept. 1898). Wellesley College Magazine (Oct. 1898).


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Barnes, Mary (Downing) Sheldon

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