Tuesday, April 16, 2019

Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)

Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)
by Sam Wineburg, 2018

I’m a history geek. I like learning about history for its own sake. But I don't expect everyone to share my geekery and there’s always going to be some student asking their teacher “When am I ever going to use this stuff in real life?” So let’s start with the title of the book. “Why should I learn history? I can look it up on my phone!” Does Wineburg provide a snappy, meme-worthy response?

Well, no, he doesn’t, and that’s fine. Instead, he gives us a book.

I first heard of Wineburg last September, when I came across his critique of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Wineburg is careful to note that he is not critiquing Zinn’s political stance. Rather, Wineburg’s point is that Zinn’s book should not occupy the central place it has in many American history curricula, because it is a polemic that doesn’t invite the reader to weigh historical evidence or really consider any interpretation besides Zinn’s own. That, Wineburg says, is not how to train students to think historically.

Now, I’m not going to weigh in here on whether this is a fair critique. I read Zinn’s book more than a decade ago, and I don’t want to evaluate what Wineburg wrote based on my spotty memory. But I liked the way Wineburg wrote about historical thinking enough that his book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) went straight on my Christmas list.

I read the book in under two days. It’s smart, and engagingly written, although I'm not fit to comment on large swathes of it, specifically the parts dealing with American education. My own high school experience ended long before the advent of today’s classroom guidelines that Wineburg critiques. Come to think of it, I don't think I've even set foot in an American public school in well over a decade.

Despite my lack of familiarity with the current state of American education, I enjoyed this book because I'm convinced that history is worth studying. I might be an American by citizenship but I live abroad, in a country with a very peculiar history that one really must understand in order to grasp the local culture or politics in any substantial way. (But maybe every country is like that?) And, not just here but everywhere, so many of the political appeals we hear are grounded in a particular interpretation of history. One can’t properly evaluate an a Facebook political meme referencing something Franklin Roosevelt did in 1933 without thinking like a historian.

Why learn history when it’s already on your phone? So you can know how much credence to give to political memes that reference history, for one thing.

What do we mean by thinking like a historian? Wineburg gives one example where high school students were given President Harrison’s 1892 proclamation declaring Columbus Day a national holiday. Asked to analyze the document historically, students did a fine job seizing on, for example, the fact that Harrison’s proclamation made much of Divine Providence and “the devout faith of the discoverer”, which certainly contrasts with the fact that by our standards Columbus’s actions were hardly those of a good Christian. This fulfilled school guidelines that the students engage with the material critically.

But as Wineburg explains, this isn’t historical thinking. A historian would focus more on the document’s cultural and political milieu, and Harrison’s motivations in proclaiming this national holiday in 1892, which most likely involved pressure by Catholic immigrant groups who were interested in seeing this symbolic bit of Catholic cultural heritage integrated into the fabric of American life. More specifically, 1892 was an election year and Harrison must have hoped Columbus Day would please Catholic voters, particularly the important Italian vote.

In the next chapter, Wineburg considers George Washington’s 1789 proclamation establishing a national day of Thanksgiving. He showed it to a range of historians and non-historians, and the non-historians all thought the tone of the proclamation was strikingly religious. Depending on their own views on religion in public life, this met with varying degrees of approval, but all of them interpreted Washington's words through 21st-century lenses.

But the historians -- and only the historians -- recognized that Washington’s contemporaries would have had a very different reaction. At first glance, we moderns seize on the document’s religious tone, but note that Jesus Christ is nowhere to be found. There’s nothing specifically Christian here. Historians contextualize Washington’s proclamation as a Deist document, giving thanks to a remote Creator while avoiding sectarian language, and it is peppered with references to science and technology that mark it as a product of the Enlightenment.

Why learn history when it’s already on your phone? So we can better understand what people in the past were thinking. That’s awfully important when the past is constantly being invoked in order to justify modern-day views.

And Wineburg takes aim at the way schools are teaching this stuff, notably the idea, inspired by Bloom’s taxonomy, that children have to first be fed a large amount of factual information, then learn to think critically about it. Wineburg says this approach “distorts why we study history in the first place”, as it “implies the world of ideas is fully known and that critical thinking means gathering accepted facts in order to render judgement” (p.92). Later on, he criticizes the notion, apparently common in American history classrooms nowadays, that students should be taught to engage in “close reading” of historical texts, while the context these texts emerged from is downplayed (p. 99-100). This notion leads to people sizing up George Washington’s thanksgiving proclamation ahistorically, and reading its religious content in a very different way then was originally intended.

Wineburg gives us glimpses of history classes, taught to pre-teens and teens, that do encourage historical thinking related to topics such as Jamestown and the story of Pocahontas, and Rosa Parks’ act of civil disobedience. My own classroom teaching at the moment does not include much history, but it’s not impossible I’ll find myself teaching history at some future point, and Wineburg’s descriptions of of teaching methodology -- and references to the useful work he and his colleagues have done at the Stanford History Education Group -- are something I shall keep around for future use.

Finally, Wineburg brings up the ability to critically evaluate online sources of information, a skill that’s important to more than just history. Wineburg has written about this topic at length -- most recently, he’s written in The Pacific Standard on the importance of media literacy, and how we should be teaching young people to approach the Web in the same way as professional fact checkers.

In the book, Wineburg takes, as an example, the websites of the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Pediatricians. Both organizations have professional-looking websites. Both publish very similar-looking content. But they are very different. The former is “the world’s largest professional organization of pediatricians”. The latter is “a splinter group that broke away from the main group in 2002 over the issue of adoption by same-sex couples”. The former has a paid staff of 450 and “offers continuing education on everything from sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS) to the importance of wearing bicycle helmets during adolescence”. The latter has one full-time employee, offers no continuing education, and has “come under withering criticism for its virulently anti-gay stance” (p. 146).

Yet they both maintain very professional-looking websites, and to a student doing online research, they both appear to be established, reputable organizations. A professional fact-checker can quickly suss out the differences between the two; a high school student might not have been taught to.

A high school student might be taught not to trust Wikipedia as a source of information, but this is far too simplistic; a professional fact checker will look up both of these organizations on Wikipedia, and focus on the references section and the “Talk” page, sometimes barely even skimming the main body of the article.

(To Google's credit, when I searched for both organizations, it brought the true nature of the American College of Pediatricians prominently to my attention. But, of course, we can't trust Google to consistently do this.)

Needless to say, on any politically contentious issue, who runs a website is particularly important information if you want to know whether to trust it, and many websites do not make that information particularly clear. To properly judge these sites, a well-trained student will look up the organization purportedly behind it, probably opening up several new browser tabs in order to compare different takes. And yet, apparently many high school students are still taught to look for spelling mistakes, banner ads, and the like as “telltale signs of digital dubiousness”, based on an article, amazingly, from 1998 (p. 156). This is utterly disconnected from the reality of the contemporary Web, where untrustworthy sources of information are just as slickly produced as any.

Now to end my post with my own bit of ill-organized ranting.

In our current media landscape, we’ve got people getting airtime on cable news and creating social media memes saying things like: “The Nazis were actually National Socialists, you know” or “Did you know the Democrats used to be the party of slavery and then segregation?”. These people clearly do not have an audience of history buffs in mind -- their whole schtick assumes we’re not history buffs. (If you're feeling irritated that in this paragraph I'm picking stuff that American right-wingers tend to say, rest assured I have no doubt you can think of examples of liberals and leftists doing the same thing. I'm not trying to play a silly game of Liberals v Conservatives here.)

Incidentally, in my high school American history class (which wasn’t even AP or Honors history), our textbook went into great detail about how the platforms of the major parties have changed and evolved between the mid-1800s and the present. You can imagine how ridiculous it looks to me now when some clown tells me something I regurgitated on a quiz in 10th grade and acts like it's something I didn't know because it's been deliberately suppressed. But I recognize that some people will be more susceptible to this sort of thing.

It’s not that people aren’t taught enough facts about history at school. It’s that they’re taught plenty about history, and then it all goes the way of the quadratic formula, the basics of molecular chemistry, the conjugations of French verbs, and everything else that gets memorized for a test and then is never needed again. Lost in the recesses of the brain.

This is why, as Wineburg argues, teaching students to think like a historian is so important -- rather than teaching history by filling students’ brains with loads of facts, then checking knowledge via multiple-choice tests. Wineburg is right that multiple-choice tests are easy to assess by machine, but I suspect there might be another factor at work.

Any teacher who seeks to give their students a worthwhile lesson on, say, the Emancipation Proclamation could potentially offend parents who might object to their child’s teacher “bringing politics into the classroom”. But it’s impossible to separate history from politics, and to argue otherwise is to misunderstand the nature of history, or of politics, or both. So how do you teach kids about history without leaving yourself open to charges of bringing politics into the classroom? Well, you teach a bunch of facts that no one can reasonably dispute and then you give a multiple choice quiz:

The Emancipation Proclamation was issued in: a. 1861, b. 1862, c. 1863, d. 1864

See, no one’s going to be offended by the political slant of THAT question! I genuinely suspect this is a factor behind a lot of boring history teaching.

How do you really teach kids about history without leaving yourself open to charges of bringing politics into the classroom? I think the answer is: you can't. And how to deal with that reality is a whole different discussion.

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