The malleable past.

### • How has the malleability of the past in the digital world complicated our work as history educators?
• How has that malleability made it easier to teach about and help our audience(s) engage with the past? ###

To respond to these questions, let me tell a short story. From the 1970s forward, some scholars on the left politically have argued that knowledge is contextual, not objective. Truth could only be discerned relative to other knowledge that produced that truth. I’m doing a great injustice to the theories of relativism, but there you are. In the 2000s, those on the political right warmed to the idea that if all truth was relative, then any argument could be held up as legitimate. Very quickly, many on the left realized the danger of this argument and retreated to a sort of quasi-empiricism, staking out more intellectual ground for evidence-based decision making.

Historians participated in this larger intellectual tussle, throwing in with the relativists before retreating a bit to land on the side of evidence-based stories. Alas, the horse has escaped the barn, and as a discipline, we have failed to convince our publics that not all stories about the past bear up to the evidence.

Compounding this problem of “my historical truth is as good as yours” is the nature of the digital world. To find truly unsupported information in the pre-digital era, you needed social connections that could facilitate the sharing of balderdash. In the digital era, spinning up a website is literally child’s play. Middle school students create hordes of websites for National History Day (and many are great!). History Day websites aside, we now have explanations about the past with little basis in evidence circulating like collateralized mortgage-backed securities in 2007.

So, historians helped deconstruct the notion that history is based on evidence, and the digital era lets many create their own malleable history. The cruel pièce de résistance of our malleable past is that both debates over truth and the velocity of non-evidence based thinking on the web fit within the frame of historical “facts” not historical thinking. So much ink and pixels are spent arguing over who is right about the past, that the idea of how we create a past has slunk to the back of our public historical conversations.

Despite the above issues, the digital era also offers possibilities to help us teach history in new ways. For example, we can help students dig into digital objects to find embedded metadata that helps frame the objects in different ways. As teachers, we can connect the motivations of migrants in the 19th century to the debates about immigration today. I can pull up my great grandmother’s entry log to Ellis Island and compare those documents with modern entry documents. Many of my students have entrance documents, yet I don’t need to go to Ellis Island to connect 1909 and 2017, I only need the web.

Perhaps most usefully, we can model good historical thinking and bad historical thinking, easily and with high impact. I’ve shown my students the picture of John McCain standing in front of Walter Reed Middle School during his 2008 Republic National Convention acceptance speech every semester and it wows every time. We can show how the inability to think critically can result in lost jobs and lost opportunities while we show the career expanding options in even basic digital history tools.

So, though our field of history suffers from significant structural problems, we also have the tools to combat some of the worse effects of these problems.

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