Clock at the Benton County Historical Society, Sauk Rapids, MN, 2019.
history history relevance practical history pragmatic historian using history

History, Meh. Why Bother?

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

I finished reading Sam Wineburg‘s “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)” and I’ve walked away scratching my head.

I went into the book thinking Wineburg, who is is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and History at Stanford University and has written a number of books on history education, was going to make a resounding case for why it’s still important to learn historical thinking even if you have all the history you could ever want at your fingertips on your phone. Instead, I left confused as to whether he is instead arguing that we need to behave more like fact-checkers online, who don’t use standard methods of historical thinking.

Maybe it’s both? Kind of? I think? Gosh, I hope the conclusion isn’t, “History, meh. Why bother?”

So, let me walk through this and see if I can come to a more definitive and positive answer.

Teaching History

“Why Learn History” is an approachable, easy-to-read book, which is good. It could have been a pedantic tome that tells us Luddites how dumb we are in language we have to slog through. Anyone interested in teaching history or learning about teaching methods regarding history should give this book consideration.

In it, Wineburg discusses the various educational projects he has undertaken in order to figure out how best to teach history in the classroom. He has had varying levels of success with his methods, with a project called PATHS: Promoting Argumentation Through History and Science sparking a high level of historical thinking among the sixth graders who participated. The discussion Wineburg relates regarding one class’s examination of Rosa Park’s Montgomery Bus Boycott (pages 109-115) is so astute it made me want to be part of that class. I would have learned something from those sixth graders.

PATHS was an engaging program that made the students enthusiastic to learn history because they were allowed to study and interact with original source materials. And if there is anything the field of history needs, it’s more enthusiasm.

Historians Wring Questions Out of Documents

Wineburg also uses a couple of chapters to discuss how historians analyze standard sources in order to draw out complex and nuanced history. Historians love analyzing the legitimacy of the sources they use and often jump right away to the citations in a history text so they can see what sources were used. Primary sources are preferable to secondary sources.

Interestingly, when one of Wineburg’s students was called upon to analyze a historic document and looked at the source prior to reading the whole piece, he assumed he was cheating. (pg. 121-122) Well, that makes every historian out there a cheater!

Seriously, historians don’t automatically take documents and publications at face value. We read them and wring questions out of them, which Wineburg discusses in his chapter “Turning Bloom’s Taxonomy on Its Head.”

“Faced with an unfamiliar document, [historians] framed questions to help them understand the fullness of the historical moment. They emerged puzzled and provoked. They ended their reading primed to seek new knowledge.” (pg. 91)

I love this quote. It pinpoints exactly what historians are on about … questions that lead to seeking further knowledge, which leads to more questions to seek even more knowledge. We are on an endless loop.

The Connecting Link

As I’ve written this far about “Why Learn History,” I think I’ve figured out my confusion concerning Wineburg’s book. He leads with all these wonderful essays on how teaching history to succeed on multiple choice tests doesn’t work, how historians actually work, and methods for improving teaching history. As he is nearing the end, he presents a chapter on people not knowing how to determine whether online sources are legitimate. Historians, for all they know how to vet traditional print sources and records, can’t properly vet online ones, either, as Wineburg observed in a study. The people who could quickly determine legitimate sources were professional online fact-checkers.

Okay, so it takes a different set of skills to analyze online sources than it does to analyze traditional sources. Does that mean historians should simply stop analyzing traditional sources and switch over to the lateral reading done by fact-checkers? That doesn’t seem to be a good conclusion.

What’s missing from Wineburg’s book, at least as far as my imperfect analysis, is a connecting link between how historians work and the methods of online fact-checkers. We need both types of thinking, because no matter how much material is online, there is still plenty of traditional documentation that needs to be analyzed using the skills of a historian.

And that’s why we need to learn history, even though so much of it can be easily accessed on our phones. It’s not the specific history we need to learn; it’s the analytical skills of the historian, plus the new lateral reading skills of fact-checkers. Historians, expand your horizons!