I ran into a typical problem the other day. It occurred in a conversation with a curator. I had asked about his collection and had explained that I was interested in finding artifacts to post on the Artifacts Teach website (www.artifactsteach.com) so that K-12 teachers could better engage their students and improve both their retention and performance on standardized tests. His response was as follows, “I have just the object you need. It is Kit Carson’s pipe. They’ll love it.” I swallowed, took a deep breath and replied, “That is just the kind of artifact that we cannot use. It is not a ‘teachable object.’ The fact that Kit Carson possessed it makes it a novelty, not an object for the focus of a lesson.” The curator was upset. He did not understand the difference between an object that might be in a museum exhibition and a “teachable object” that can be used in a classroom to open the past to students in engaging and challenging ways.
So, what is a “teachable object”? There are several criteria, but the first, and most important, is that the object must contain the potential to raise important historical ideas (self-sufficiency, changing values, enduring traditions for example). Kit Carson’s pipe does not have that potential. At best, it shows us that Kit Carson was a smoker and that he preferred pipes. This is not earth-shattering stuff, nor does it contain much historical significance. Smoking was common in the 19th century. Pipes were preferred as neither cigarettes nor cigars were readily available. Kit Carson’s pipe doesn’t open any doors to the past for us. If not his pipe, then what object(s) that Kit Carson owned might meet our basic criterion?
Kit Carson was a fur trapper. One of his beaver traps would serve to open the door to the exploration of the beaver trade in the 183os and ’40s. In addition, like 40% of all fur trappers, he married Native American (Arapaho and Cheyenne) women, and one Hispanic woman. To Carson’s credit, he was only married to one woman at a time. Any gift given to Carson by any of his wives opens the door to the multicultural nature of the American Southwest, a place where French, Spanish, Native Americans and Anglo Europeans mixed and mingled. Kit Carson’s military uniform allows students to explore the role of the US military in the settling of the West as well as the nature of “Indian Removal.” Unbeknownst to most teachers, nearly every Native American society experienced removal from their homeland to a remote and unfamiliar region. Carson led the Navajos to the Bosque Redondo as part of his role as Indian Agent, scout, and military leader.
The second criterion for a “teachable object” is that it should excite students’ interest in the topic at hand. It should draw them into the larger story. Certainly Carson’s uniform has that characteristic. “Kit Carson’s Coat,” currently part of the Colorado Historical Society’s collection at the Baca House in Trinidad, Colorado, also has the potential to grab students’ interest. It looks as if it were made by Native Americans, but it is machine stitched. It is decorated with Native American symbols, but was produced in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Finally, no one knows if Carson ever wore it. The traditional story is that he owned the coat and gave it to a friend, but there is no proof of ownership on either end of that transaction. So, what larger story does the “Kit Carson Coat” offer? The most valuable lesson today, I think, is that the American Southwest was a messy place where people of many cultures mixed and openly borrowed from each other. Kit Carson’s military uniform, Kit Carson’s “coat,” Kit Carson’s medicine pouch, Kit Carson’s beaver traps open the door to larger questions, and greater stories than the man himself. They are teachable objects. Kit Carson’s Pipe is not.
To see more teachable objects, go to Artifacts Teach at http://www.artifactsteach.com.