Reflection on Wineburg: historical thinking over history.

Propmpt: “Given the current discussion about facts, real or “alternative”, how should we use what we know about historical thinking, public perceptions of the past, and what we can do with digital media, to promote a more accurate understanding of the past? Write a blog post that explores these questions.”

I applaud Wineburg for privileging historical thinking over historical facts. As I tell my students, arguing over what’s in a picture means you’ve already lost the argument because someone else created the frame. Framing an argument involves a complex set of historical thinking choices that include what sources to include, what theories of historical action will be mentioned and what temporal, geographic, and personnel limits are set. Once you are arguing over who the greatest president of the United States was, you’ve already yielded the field to others as the terms of the debate are set.

Framing, or providing historical context, is especially important given the instant access nature of information retrieval brought on by web technologies. Even the language of the web encourages us not to consider context. When you search a search engine gives you “results,” which as my iOS dictionary defines as “a consequence, effect, or outcome of something.” In put A and get a result B. As historians we often focus on how B is not an evidence-based historical fact, when we should be blowing up the A then B equation entirely to encourage students to ask more human and interesting questions.

For example, I have searched and found not a single year since 40 BCE in wikipedia to lack its own entry. Type in any year and you’ll get a page of what Wikipedia editors conclude happened in that year. Centuries and decades are sometimes linked on the right hand side. References for year entries are typically a single encyclopedia. We, as historians, should start by making these year pages full-to-the brim with references that pull the general public into a wider discussion about historical thinking. As soon as someone google “1492” and lands on Wikipedia, there should be dozens of references that provide context.

This approach largely cedes the ground to Wikipedia while attempting to mitigate the damage it does to our collective historical thinking. A more proactive approach would be to bridges the divides between critical thinking, information literacy, digital literacy, and scientific thinking. While these skills are separate, they all involved sorting credible information. For example, the same technique Wineburg used to debunk the Hitler museum could be used to debunk vaccine or climate change deniers. We cannot, as a discipline, expect our students to value historical thinking in isolation, and there are great partnerships to be made with other disciplines who struggle to teach students how to use digital media.

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