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Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone) (2018)

af Sam Wineburg

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Let's start with two truths about our era that are so inescapable as to have become clichés: We are surrounded by more readily available information than ever before. And a huge percentage of it is inaccurate. Some of the bad info is well-meaning but ignorant. Some of it is deliberately deceptive. All of it is pernicious.   With the internet always at our fingertips, what's a teacher of history  to do? Sam Wineburg has answers, beginning with this: We definitely can't stick to the same old read-the-chapter-answer-the-questions-at-the-back snoozefest we've subjected students to for decades. If we want to educate citizens who can sift through the mass of information around them and separate fact from fake, we have to explicitly work to give them the necessary critical thinking tools. Historical thinking, Wineburg shows us in Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone), has nothing to do with test prep-style ability to memorize facts. Instead, it's an orientation to the world that we can cultivate, one that encourages reasoned skepticism, discourages haste, and counters our tendency to confirm our biases. Wineburg draws on surprising discoveries from an array of research and experiments--including surveys of students, recent attempts to update history curricula, and analyses of how historians, students, and even fact checkers approach online sources--to paint a picture of a dangerously mine-filled landscape, but one that, with care, attention, and awareness, we can all learn to navigate. It's easy to look around at the public consequences of historical ignorance and despair. Wineburg is here to tell us it doesn't have to be that way. The future of the past may rest on our screens. But its fate rests in our hands.… (mere)
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I was hoping for one thing but got another: a rant against Howard Zinn.

He argues against strawmen with such ahistorical ideas as "[Zinn] places Jim Crow and the Holocaust on the same footing, without explaining that as color barriers were being dismantled in the United States, bricks were being laid for the crematoria at Auschwitz." I'm sorry, but who exactly was dismantling Jim Crow? The whole US? That's nationalist myth. Obviously the point that history is not black/white or good/evil went over Wineburg's head. Many of this other take-downs are similarly misconstrued or cherry-picking.

Zinn's not above criticism, but 1. do it in a book about that, and 2. do a better job of it. ( )
  mitchtroutman | Jun 14, 2020 |
The author is famous for his much-needed takedown of the over-used Howard Zinn People’s History of the United States, which describes a simplistic Holden Caulfield-like “our-elders-are-all-hypocrites” attitude toward history and this book is worth reading for that section alone, which points out the many serious errors (especially of omission) in Zinn’s accounts of McCarthyism (Soviet archives later revealed that many of Zinn’s heroes really were spies), Allied bombings in World War II (Zinn distorts the timeframe to suggest both sides were wrong), but mostly Zinn is guilty of uncritically treating history like it’s an open-and-shut case. Yup, such-and-such happened and no need to dig any further.

But real historical inquiry requires us to ask why to everything. As he shows in an example of people examining an 1892 New York Times article declaring a holiday in honor of Columbus, good historians should start with “Okay, it’s 1892”. Instead of launching into a tirade against Columbus, ask about the circumstances that would have led people in 1892 to think Columbus was worthy of honor. That will bring more insights than simply regurgitating facts you learned outside the source material itself.

I think you can skip parts 3 and 4, unless you’re interested in the history behind how the author set up his current research project to improve education. The section “Why Google Can’t Save Us”, is a depressing account of how hard it is — even for experts — to tell truth from falsehood on the Internet.

The author dissects a George Washington speech to show how easy it is to read today’s values (about religion, for example) into a past that was much more complicated and nuanced than our lazy minds might hope. But similarly I wonder if the author himself realizes how much he is a product of his own time and whether some of his observations will seem quaint and outdated in the future. As he says:

History humbles us when it acquaints us with our ignorance. Even the most esteemed historian cannot possess the knowledge needed to reconstitute the past in every era and region. Yet the awareness that we cannot take at face value words from other times and places inspires a sobering caution. At its best, this caution cultivates respect for others, who may have spoken the same language as we do but meant something entirely different in doing so. Words, too, are steeped in history. Shorn of knowledge, we become caged by the present and turn the past into a faded and inferior copy of the world we already know. Our ignorance gladly issues invitations to stereotypes to fill in the gaps. These impostors are more than happy to oblige.

Good words that apply to the present as well. Understanding history is hard because it teaches us understanding the present is hard too. ( )
  richardSprague | Mar 22, 2020 |
Delightful collection of essay on how to teach history, and - in general - how to apply digital media literacy to teaching.

— "A pedagogic misjudgment can be the handmaiden to epiphany. “I realized then and there,” (...) recalled, “that I cannot lament my students’ inability to decipher fake news if I haven’t given them the chance to practice doing it.” Will had rediscovered Pedagogy’s First Law, credited to Poseidon, the Greek god of the sea: If you want to teach students to swim, get them wet. Similarly, if you want to teach students the difference between reliable information and tabloid gossip, you can’t confiscate their phones. You have to use their phones to show them what their phones can’t do." ( )
  haraldgroven | Sep 8, 2019 |
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In October 2010 the Washington Post broke a story about a fourth-grade textbook called Our Virginia, Past and Present. (introduction)
The year the United States entered the First World War witnessed another first: the publication of results from the first large-scale test of historical facts. (Chapter 1)
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Let's start with two truths about our era that are so inescapable as to have become clichés: We are surrounded by more readily available information than ever before. And a huge percentage of it is inaccurate. Some of the bad info is well-meaning but ignorant. Some of it is deliberately deceptive. All of it is pernicious.   With the internet always at our fingertips, what's a teacher of history  to do? Sam Wineburg has answers, beginning with this: We definitely can't stick to the same old read-the-chapter-answer-the-questions-at-the-back snoozefest we've subjected students to for decades. If we want to educate citizens who can sift through the mass of information around them and separate fact from fake, we have to explicitly work to give them the necessary critical thinking tools. Historical thinking, Wineburg shows us in Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone), has nothing to do with test prep-style ability to memorize facts. Instead, it's an orientation to the world that we can cultivate, one that encourages reasoned skepticism, discourages haste, and counters our tendency to confirm our biases. Wineburg draws on surprising discoveries from an array of research and experiments--including surveys of students, recent attempts to update history curricula, and analyses of how historians, students, and even fact checkers approach online sources--to paint a picture of a dangerously mine-filled landscape, but one that, with care, attention, and awareness, we can all learn to navigate. It's easy to look around at the public consequences of historical ignorance and despair. Wineburg is here to tell us it doesn't have to be that way. The future of the past may rest on our screens. But its fate rests in our hands.

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