The Latest from Sam Wineburg: Historians are Duped By Fake News More Often than “Fact Checkers”

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Here is the press release from Wineburg‘s Stanford History Education Group:

How do expert researchers go about assessing the credibility of information on the internet? Not as skillfully as you might guess – and those who are most effective use a tactic that others tend to overlook, according to scholars at Stanford Graduate School of Education.

A new report released recently by the Stanford History Education Group(SHEG) shows how three different groups of “expert” readers – fact checkers, historians and Stanford undergraduates – fared when tasked with evaluating information online.

The fact checkers proved to be fastest and most accurate, while historians and students were easily deceived by unreliable sources.

“Historians sleuth for a living,” said Professor Sam Wineburg, founder of SHEG, who co-authored the report with doctoral student Sarah McGrew. “Evaluating sources is absolutely essential to their professional practice. And Stanford students are our digital future. We expected them to be experts.”

The report’s authors identify an approach to online scrutiny that fact checkers used consistently but historians and college students did not: The fact checkers read laterally, meaning they would quickly scan a website in question but then open a series of additional browser tabs, seeking context and perspective from other sites.

In contrast, the authors write, historians and students read vertically, meaning they would stay within the original website in question to evaluate its reliability. These readers were often taken in by unreliable indicators such as a professional-looking name and logo, an array of scholarly references or a nonprofit URL.

When it comes to judging the credibility of information on the internet, Wineburg said, skepticism may be more useful than knowledge or old-fashioned research skills. “Very intelligent people were bamboozled by the ruses that are part of the toolkit of digital deception today,” he said.

Read the rest here.

When it Comes to Measuring Historical Thinking, the “Nation’s Report Card” is “Fool’s Gold”

Exam

First, here is some background on the National Assessment of Educational Progress report.  It is often described as “the nation’s report card.”

And here is a taste of critique of the NAEP by Sam Wineburg, Mark Smith, and Joel Breakstone:

Students have never fared well on NAEP’s tests in these subjects. The first history test in 1987 found that half of the students couldn’t place the Civil War in the right half-century. Some 15 years later, following a decade of new standards, The Washington Post wrote that students on the 2001 exam “lack even a basic knowledge of American history.” In 2014, the last time history was tested, the New York Times fished into the recycling bin for this headline: “Most Eighth-Graders Score Low on History, Civics.”

But what would happen if instead of grading the kids, we graded the test makers? How? By evaluating the claims they make about what their tests actually measure.

For example, in history, NAEP claims to test not only names and dates, but critical thinking — what it calls “Historical Analysis and Interpretation.” Such questions require students to “explain points of view,” “weigh and judge different views of the past,” and “develop sound generalizations and defend these generalizations with persuasive arguments.” In college, students demonstrate these skills by writing analytical essays in which they have to put facts into context. NAEP, however, claims it can measure such skills using traditional multiple-choice questions.

We wanted to test this claim. We administered a set of Historical Analysis and Interpretation questions from NAEP’s 2010 12th-grade exam to high school students who had passed the Advanced Placement (AP) exam in U.S. History (with a score of 3 or above). We tracked students’ thinking by having them verbalize their thoughts as they solved the questions.

What we learned shocked us.

In a study that appears in the forthcoming American Educational Research Journal, we show that in 108 cases (27 students answering four different items), there was not a single instance in which students’ thinking resembled anything close to “Historical Analysis and Interpretation.” Instead, drawing on canny test-taking strategies, students typically did an end run around historical content to arrive at their answers.

Read the entire piece here.  I need to share this piece with my “Teaching History” class. We are in the midst of reading Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

“Teaching History” Reading List

WineburgYesterday I had my first meeting with my “Teaching History” (HIST 390) course at Messiah College. Here are the books I have assigned:

Gary Nash, History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past.

James Percoco, A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History

Bruce VanSledright, The Challenge of Rethinking History Education: On Practices, Theories, and Policy

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts

Sam Wineburg, et. al, Reading Like a Historian; Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School Classrooms

We dive into Nash on Friday.

The Mark of a Narcissist

This tweet is one of the many signs that Donald Trump is a narcissist.  It shows he is incapable of seeing himself as part of a presidential history that is larger than himself. Not all presidents have been perfect, and others have certainly shown narcissistic tendencies, but many of them have been humbled in some way by the office.  Our best presidents thought about their four or eight years in power with historical continuity in mind.  This required them to respect the integrity of the office and the unofficial moral qualifications that come with it.

Trump spits in the face of such historical continuity.  This is progressive thinking at its worst.  It makes me think of Tocqueville in Democracy of America

Not only does democracy make men forget their ancestors, but also clouds their view of their descendants and isolates them from their contemporaries. Each man is forever thrown back on himself alone, and there is danger that he may be shut up in the solitude of his own heart.

Michael Gerson put it his way: “Trump seems to have no feel for, no interest in, the American story he is about to enter.”

And let’s not forget Sam Wineburg in the context of historical thinking:

For the narcissist sees the world–both the past and the present–in his own image.  Mature historical understanding teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (“leads outward” in the Latin) in the deepest sense.  Of the subjects in the secular curriculum, it is the best at teaching those virtues once reserved for theology–humility in the face of our limited ability to know, and awe in the face of the expanse of history.–Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

If Wineburg is correct, the antidote to narcissism is “mature historical understanding.” Let’s keep working.

Are Students *Still* Ignorant of the History of the Civil Rights Movement?

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Back in 2011 I wrote a post titled “Are Students Ignorant of the Civil Rights Movement?” I linked to Sam Wineburg‘s criticism of a Southern Poverty Law Center study that concluded students are not familiar with the basic facts of the fight to end Jim Crow in the 1950s and 1960s.  Here is a taste of what Wineburg wrote in the LA Times in October 2011:

“Students’ Knowledge of Civil Rights History Has Deteriorated,” one headline announced. “Civil Rights Movement Education ‘Dismal’ in American Schools,” declared another.

The alarming headlines, which appeared in newspapers across the country, grew out of a report released three weeks ago by the Southern Poverty Law Center, “Teaching the Movement,” which claims that the civil rights movement is widely ignored in history classrooms. By not teaching it, the report claims, American education is “failing in its responsibility to educate its citizens to be agents of change.” The study included a report card for individual states, and California got slapped with a big fat F.

But is it true? Are today’s students really not learning about such an important part of U.S. history? The Southern Poverty Law Center has done groundbreaking work in combating racism and prejudice. But its new study simply doesn’t stand up.

For starters, the report did not base its conclusions on any direct testing of student knowledge. Not a single student, not a single teacher, not a single principal answered a single question about their knowledge for this report. The closest we get to a live child — and even this is a stretch — comes from Julian Bond, who wrote the report’s forward. Bond recounts that “some years ago” he gave a quiz to college students and found that none could identify George Wallace.

The report’s writers turned to a proven recipe in our crisis-addicted society. First, they gathered up standards documents from all 50 states laying out what students at each grade level should study; then they conducted a “content analysis” to determine what’s in these documents; next they landed a marquee figure to endorse the report; and finally, they invoked terms of impending doom and handed the final report to the PR department.

Had the report’s writers bothered to talk to real kids, they might have found something closer to what we found in a national survey of 2,000 high school students, reported in the March 2008 Journal of American History. We gave students a blank sheet and asked them to write down the names of figures from “Columbus to the present day” who are the “most famous Americans in history, not including presidents or first ladies.”

Surprisingly, teens rarely put down rock stars or sports idols for top picks. Instead, they listed legitimate historical figures such as Benjamin Franklin, Susan B. Anthony, Thomas Edison and Amelia Earhart. Three names, however, dominated the lists, appearing more often than any other heroes in U.S. history. Each of these figures comes straight from the civil rights movement: Martin Luther King Jr. (appearing on 67% of all lists), Rosa Parks (60%) and Harriet Tubman (44%).

Are American students still ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement?  I have heard this over and over again from folks this week while I travel through the South as part of a Civil Rights bus tour.

If students today are ignorant of the history of the Civil Rights Movement, I am not sure it is because the Movement is not covered adequately in history textbooks or state standards.  I am not familiar with every set of state history standards, but I would imagine that all of them, or nearly all of them, cover the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, there are some exceptions, especially in certain types of private institutions.  And yes, many textbooks do not cover the Movement to a degree of depth that will satisfy everyone.  But I wonder if the lack of knowledge about the Movement is representative of student ignorance in all areas of history.

Thoughts?

The Task of the History Teacher in the Age of Trump

SeixasPeter Seixas, a scholar of historical thinking at the University of British Columbia, gives some credence to what I have been saying for several months now at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  The age of Trump has forced us to go back to the basics.  We must do a better job of explaining the role of truth and facts when we teach historical thinking.  This is no longer a given.

Here is a taste of Seixas’s excellent piece at Public History Weekly:

Many of the modern, liberal traditions that have been challenged by Trump and his fellow travelers were, until recently, so fundamental that history educators barely gave them a passing thought. Academics hardly needed to rally to defend the idea of truth, because the only threat was from some of our own poststructuralist provocateurs, delivered in prose so tortured that it had little apparent impact on the broader public sphere. When a serial liar became the United States’ President and an advocate of “alternative facts” was retained as his assistant, the game changed.

The implications for history education and its scholars, internationally, are profound. If we need to revisit our stances on truth and facts, so too do we need to re-examine those of research and knowledge, interpretation and evidence, community and nation, identity and difference, and citizenship and solidarity.

One hardly need mention the attention, in recent decades, to positionality in knowledge production.[3] But where does “positionality” leave knowledge in relation to the purveyors of “alternative facts,” who claim they are the truth from their own position in Memphis or Moscow? Of course, people’s varieties of experience and belief, and differences in relation to power and privilege, are at the core of the social, educational, and historical sciences. But building knowledge must ultimately emerge through dialogue, debate and discussion, as a common project conducted on a common basis of civility and with a shared respect for evidence. In the current climate, we cannot afford to toy with separate islands of identity-based theory.

The problem of teaching about historical interpretations, similarly, needs to be examined through a new lens in this political environment. Most history education scholars in recent decades, myself included, have sought to destabilize students’ belief that what is in the textbook—or any contemporary account—is the story of what happened. We have focused on the categorical difference between interpretations of the past and the past itself. That difference has not vanished in the age of “alternative facts,” nor has the importance of teaching it.  But the burden is upended. That is, our central challenge will be to help students understand the limits of interpretation, the constraints that bind what we say to the evidence that we have, and the importance of defending interpretations that are supported by the weight of evidence, not as just one among many possible ways of seeing things.

Read the entire piece here.

Seixas also makes a “special recommendation” of Sam Wineburg’s forthcoming (2018) book Stuck in the Past: Why Learn History When It’s Already on Your iPhone? (University of Chicago Press).  You can listen to our interview with Wineburg at Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.

Don’t Know Much About History

David Barton recently appeared on the Glenn Beck radio program to talk about history education.  He argues that “the progressives” are to blame for lack of student knowledge in American history today.

Listen here:

When I heard Barton imply that history students prior to 1920 had a solid grasp of American history, I thought about the opening pages of Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.

Wineburg writes:

Identify the source of the following statement: 

“Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.”

The above characterization of high schools students historical knowledge comes from:

(a).  Ravitch and Finn’s report on the 1987 National Assessment of Educational Progress, in which they argued that students’ test scores place them “at risk of being gravely handicapped by…ignorance upon entry into adulthood, citizenship, and parenthood.”

(b). The 1976 New York Times test of American youth, published under the banner “Times Test Shows Knowledge of American History Limited.”

(c).  Reports on the 1942 New York Times history exam that prompted Allan Nevins to write that high school students are “all too ignorant of American history.”

(d).  None of the above

The correct answer is (d), none of the above.  This quotation comes from neither the 1987 a18c6-wineburgNational Assessment nor from any of the earlier reports.  To find its source we have to go back to 1917, long before television, the social studies lobby, the teaching of “thinking skills,” the breakup of the family, the growth of the Internet, or any of the other factors we use to explain low test scores.  Yet the conclusions of J. Carleton Bell and David McCollum, who in 1917 tested 668 Texas high school students and published their findings in the fledgling Journal of Educational Psychology, differ little from those of subsequent commentators.  Considering the vast differences between those who attended high school in 1917 and the near-universal enrollments of today, the stability of students’ ignorance is amazing.  The whole world has turned on its head, but one thing has stayed the same: Kids don’t know history.

Why Historical Thinking is Essential in the #AgeofTrump

Why Study History CoverThis morning two commentators were on CNN talking about how a gunman, claiming he was investigating a fake news story about Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign, fired shots in a Washington D.C. pizzeria.

Yes, you read that correctly, a guy acted on a fake news story and could have killed someone.  Perhaps he was mentally unstable.  Perhaps he was one of the many people who feel empowered to do this kind of thing in the #ageoftrump. Or perhaps he was completely incapable of deciphering the difference between a fake news story and a real one.  To make matters worse, CNN is reporting that the son of Gen. Michael Flynn, Donald Trump’s pick for National Security Adviser,  apparently created this story. Flynn himself has promoted similar stories.

In the course of the on-air discussion, both CNN commentators tried to say something about the importance of truth, evidence-based arguments, critical examination of news stories and other documents, understanding the context of news stories, and considering the source of such narratives.  Needless to say, I perked up as I watched these commentators desperately search for a language to describe this problem.

Let me suggest that the language they are looking for is the language of historical thinking.  Consider the recent report published by Sam Wineburg and the Stanford History Education Group. Read the entire thing here.  It is very rich and it should be read by all teachers, especially history teachers.

https://www.npr.org/player/embed/503129818/503141179

I remain convinced that the study of history is the best way to teach kids and college students how to read.  If Wineburg and these CNN commentators are correct, the study of history, and the thinking and reading skills that come with it, may be our best hope. Perhaps the #ageoftrump will finally wake us up to the need for this kind of thinking.   I hope so.

No Empathy for Trump?

Darryl

Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

Did the Idea of “Knowledge for Knowledge’s Sake” Die With the Internet?

Moravian

This article recently came across one of my social media feeds.  It is written by Byron L. Grigsby, the president of Moravian College, an excellent liberal arts college in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

Grigsby writes:

Vocation. This is a word with deep and important significance. Liberal Arts. This is an ideal of education with an equally deep set of meanings. Liberal arts colleges already do a great job developing a diverse group of socially responsible, critical thinkers, but they must start guiding students to their true vocation. For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.

I don’t mean vocation in the way it is used today, a trade, but rather by its original meaning, “to find one’s calling.” So, how is this achieved while staying true to the foundations of a liberal arts education?

The answer is deceptively simple; liberal arts institutions can no longer stand pat with traditional models alone. They must start to embrace career exploration, technology, and professional programs.

Read the entire piece at a website called University Business.

I need to begin my analysis of this article with a caveat.  I am not opposed to helping liberal arts students think about what they can do with their liberal arts degrees.  Anyone who reads The Way of Improvement Leads Home knows that I have been committed to these kinds of efforts.  I devoted a whole chapter in my book Why Study History?: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past to career options for history students and I have devoted extensive time at this blog to my “So What CAN You Do With a History Major?” series.

But I was troubled by the way Grigsby framed his piece, particularly this sentence: “For liberal arts colleges, the idea of knowledge for knowledge sake can no longer be your primary focus. That idea died with the onset of the Internet.”

If I read him correctly, Grigsby seems to think that a liberal arts education is simply the accumulation of knowledge–information that can easily be found online through a simple Google search.  This is the equivalent of the idea that the study of history is simply the memorization of facts.  Frankly, I am surprised that Grigsby would say such a thing. His bio suggests that he is a humanities person–a scholar of early modern British literature.

By making the leap directly from Internet knowledge to career development, Grigsby misses what is perhaps the most important contribution that liberal arts colleges can make to democratic life–training in the ability to think critically about the information found on the Internet.

I thought about Grigsby’s piece as I read Sam Wineburg‘s article “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.”  Many of you know Wineburg.  He teaches history teachers how to think historically from his post at Stanford University. He directs the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written several books including one my personal favorites, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  His appearance on The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast is our most popular episode (#4).

In his latest article, which is adopted from his keynote address at the 2015 meeting of the American Association for State and Local History, Wineburg approaches our information-saturated way of life from a different perspective than Grigsby.

He writes:

Think back to claims that our president was born in Kenya. This was a claim embraced by many prominent people, including a current Republican candidate for president. And there on YouTube was an actual tape, a tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s grandmother, being interviewed by an American cleric about the circumstances of our president’s birth.

So I wanted to do an experiment with the generation often referred to as digital natives. I was asked to give a talk at a highly regarded independent school. The administration had assembled their sophomore and junior classes, over 100 students. I asked these kids how many of them had heard that President Obama had been born in Kenya. Sophisticated and well-healed, they looked at me as if I were from outer space.

But then, knowing teenagers as I do, I appealed to their bravado. “I assume,” I said, “that if you are so certain, you all must have examined the evidence. I assume all of you have heard the tape of Sarah Obama, the president’s paternal grandmother, talking about being ‘present’ at her grandson’s birth. Just so I can be sure, please raise your hand if you’ve listened to this tape.” No hands went in the air. “Soooooo,” I taunted them, “you’re judging a claim without looking at the evidence?” And then—those of you who work with teenagers will recognize this move—I asked them, “Are you open-minded or closed?” I’ve yet to meet a teenager who admits to close-mindedness.

I played the tape. Sarah Obama, a woman who had never left Kenya, claimed that she was “present” at her grandson’s birth. Someone’s a liar. Either an 86-year-old woman or the President of the United States. Now, with a little bit of nudging, students started to motivate some questions. Had the tape been doctored? No, it had been examined forensically. It was authentic. What about the material that comes before and after the part I played–a lovely question, very pertinent to historical thinking. Another wanted to know if the translation into English was correct, an astute question because Sarah Obama was speaking Swahili, not her native language. What happens to this word “present” as it moves from Luo, Sarah Obama’s native language, to her broken Swahili and then into English? Does it mean she was physically present? Or, that she merely heard of her grandson’s birth?

“What else would we want to know about the tape?” I pressed on. But it seemed that I had exhausted the bank of student questions. Despite the fact that many of these digital natives were headed to top colleges, they were still babes in the woods when it came to asking rudimentary questions of historical thinking: Who authored this tape, how did it come to be? Who was this Bishop Ron McCrae, the head of the Anabaptist Church of North America, the man heard speaking to Sarah Obama’s interpreter? How would we find out? Such questions-the A’s, B’s, and C’s of historical thinking— were anything but intuitive to this group of bright teenagers.

Let me suggest, then, that it is one thing to be a digital native and quite another to be digitally intelligent. Long before the Internet, Thomas Jefferson argued for the wisdom of the yeoman farmer, a person who would think, discern, and come to reasoned conclusions in the face of conflicting information. Today, when practically everything has changed about how we get our information, what does informed citizenship mean? 

This what a liberal arts education should be doing–teaching students how to think and evaluate evidence so that they can be functioning members of a democratic society.  This is what historians do for a living.  Yes, vocation is important. Yes, careers are important. But the notion that liberal arts colleges should focus on these things because all the information we need can be found on the Internet just seems naive and completely out of touch.

Wineburg concludes:

Back in the analog stone-age we could rely on factchecked newspapers to stay well-informed. Watching the news at night, we could rely on the major outlets and their anchors to save us from error. Peter Jennings. Tom Brokaw. Brian Williams. (Okay, maybe not Brian Williams.)

What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checkers, and subject matter experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us. But there’s a problem with this new reality. As the journalist John H. McManus reminds us, in a democracy the ill-informed hold just as much power in the ballot box as the well-informed. The future of the republic hangs in the balance.

Reliable information is to civic intelligence what clean air and clean water are to public health. Long before the Internet, long before blogs, before Instagram, before Twitter and Yik Yak, James Madison understood what was at stake when people cannot tell the difference between credible information and shameless bluff. “A popular government,” Madison wrote, “ without popular information, or the means of acquiring it, is but a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both. Knowledge will forever govern ignorance: And a people who mean to be their own Governors, must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.”

Read Wineburg’s entire piece here.

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

a18c6-wineburgDuring all of the debate surrounding the “Historians Against Trump” movement (see the summary post at History News Network) I thought about our interview with Stanford education professor and historical thinking guru Sam Wineburg on Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.

In the course of the interview, our producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling asked Wineburg why kids should learn how to think historically.

Here is what Wineburg said:

Well, what’s the alternative to thinking like historians? Thinking like totalitarians?  Thinking like fascists?  Historical thinking is training for the mind, training to deal with the cacophonous voices of a democracy, training to think through a reasoned position that is supported by evidence.  The alternative is uninformed opinion, some of which we are experiencing right now with the claims of the leading contender for the Republican nomination who makes claims that cannot be supported at all, and yet people are credulous and believe in them and I think that is a testament to the failure of our educational system.

Listen to our interview with Wineburg here (Episode 4).  I especially recommend it for K-12 teachers.  

Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

A few days ago I was having dinner with a local history teacher who had just listened to Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  Some of you may recall that this was our interview on K-12 education and historical thinking with Stanford’s Sam Wineburg. We have been getting a lot of response to this episode from history teachers. For example, yesterday I received this tweet from a history teacher.

During our dinner conversation, my teacher friend said how much he appreciated historical podcasts.  As is the case with most teachers, he was very busy and did not have much time during the school year to stay connected to things going on in the field. Podcasts were his lifeline to the discipline since he could listen to them on his daily commute to school.

Others get their dose of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast on their morning run or their daily workout at the gym or health club.  I know of one fan of the podcast who listens while he is washing dishes!

If you have yet to listen to the podcast perhaps Episode 8 might entice you to download, subscribe, or write a review at ITunes.  Our guests are Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Annette Gordon Reed, and University of Virginia history professor and Jefferson scholar Peter Onuf.  They are the authors of the just-released Most Blessed of the Patriarchs: Thomas Jefferson and the Empire of the Imagination.

During the course of the episode I also share some thoughts about the complexity of the past and the uses of Jefferson’s legacy by Christian Right activist David Barton.

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Are You Listening to The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

podcast-icon1On Tuesday we will drop Episode 6 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  It will focus on the ways we narrate the past. Our guest will be Nate DiMeo, the host, chief storyteller, and producer of the wildly popular podcast The Memory Palace.

While you are waiting for this episode to drop, I want to encourage you to get caught up with past episodes, subscribe to the podcast, or write an ITunes review.

Here is where we have been so far:

Episode 0: We introduce the podcast and explain the meaning of phrase “the way of improvement leads home.”

Episode 1:  We talk with Jim Grossman, Executive Director of the American Historical Association, about the power of history in American society and the twitter hashtag #everythinghasahistory

Episode 2: Daniel K. Williams, author of Defenders of the Unborn: The Pro-Life Movement Before Roe v. Wade reflects historically on this controversial issue in ways that will benefit listeners on both side of the debate.

Episode 3:  Yoni Appelbaum, the Washington Bureau Chief at The Atlantic, dares us to be historians in public and offers some ways to think historically about the current presidential campaign.

Episode 4: Stanford professor and history education guru Sam Wineburg, the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts, talks historical thinking, Common Core, and the Teaching American history grants

Episode 5:  We talk about “encountering the past” in and out of museums and historical sites with Tim Grove, Chief of Museum Education at the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum and the author of A Grizzly in the Mail and other Adventures in American History

In addition to these interviews, all of our episodes include a conversation about history with producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling and a historical essay or story related to the theme of the episode.

Have You Listened to the Latest Episode of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast?

podcast-icon1Public historian Chris Graham has.

He has a nice review and analysis at his blog Whig Hill.  His post is entitled “Humility and Acts of Understanding.”  Here is a taste:

John Fea has a podcast and it is good. I’ve long been a fan of Professor Fea’s work, particularly his efforts to bridge the divide between disciplinary history and the public (in his case, chiefly, the evangelical public.) In the current episode Fea lays out approaches to history education that he has encountered in his work in the classroom and beyond: some folks want “just the facts,” others go for history as civics education, and many promote the value of historical thinking skills to life and society in general. These are not exclusive categories, but I prioritize the historical thinking aspect. I believe Fea does, too. You scratch the surface on him and you see the influence of Sam Wineburg, director of the Stanford History Education Group, interviewed in this latest episode. Fea calls the interview provocative and I suspect it’s because of Wineburg’s strident critiques of the Teaching American History program.

Read the rest here.

And don’t forget to subscribe, download episodes, and write a review at ITunes

A Rare Glimpse Into the Making of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast

Nilsa

If you have been following our Facebook and Twitter feeds you know that Episode 4 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast will drop on Sunday at midnight.

The episode focuses on teaching history and our guest is Sam Wineburg, the Director of the Stanford History Education Group at Stanford University and the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  It is an amazing interview and a MUST listen if you teach history in any capacity or just care about the role of history in American society.

It is a well-known fact that our producer Drew Dyrli Hermeling does very little work on the actual production of the podcast.  Much of it is done by his daughter Nilsa, as evidenced in the picture above.  As you may recall from Episode 0, Nilsa has long been a fixture of our podcast production meetings.  I should also add that she finds my loud New Jersey accent very soothing and comforting.

If you are new to The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast listen to past episodes here and at ITunes. Download, subscribe, tell a friend, share, and please consider writing a review. Help us build our audience!

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Useable Pasts on Stage and Screen

“Hamilton” on Broadway

According to Ester Bloom, a writer at The Atlantic, Americans love historical stories, films, narratives, and plays that meet their personal and political needs.  She is right.  This is why Sam Wineburg called historical thinking an “unnatural” act.  We are wired to find something we need in the past–something that inspires us or helps us achieve present-day ends.  I made a strong argument along these lines in Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past and have been making this argument here at the blog and in my classes for years.

Here is a taste of Bloom’s article:

Liberals seem to prioritize historical titles that offer irreverence, complexity, and, sometimes, humor. While Republicans and Democrats alike may be found waiting in line in front of the Richard Rodgers Theater to enter the lottery for discounted tickets—Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical is one of the few subjects on which former Vice President Cheney and President Obama can publicly agree—Democrats seem to be more enthusiastic, given that they are using the show for fundraising purposes. And, before there was Hamilton, there was the off-Broadway (and briefly on-Broadway) sensation Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, wherein the famous frontiersman and seventh president was pilloried via comic rock opera.

Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist and a professor of ethical leadership at New York University’s Stern School of Business, has written that his research suggeststhat “liberals want to loosen things up, especially in ways that they believe will make more room for women, African Americans, gay people, and other oppressed groups to escape from traditional strictures, express themselves, and succeed.” In other words, the same kind of people who turn to satire for their news prefer their history to be inclusive and not taken too seriously…

Conservatives are also fans of civics, though they tend to come at the subject in a more sincere, goal-oriented fashion. One right-wing site, Liberty News, posits that forgetting the sacrifices made by the Founding Fathers “will ultimately lead to government dependence,” in which case, “ownership over our way of life will be transferred to the government.” A belief that the stakes are truly that high may be the reason that conservative pundits Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, and Glenn Beck have recently—and with immense success—repackaged themselves as earnest writers of a kind of history that venerates so-called Great Men.

Read the rest here.

History News Network: "South Dakota: Please Reconsider Your Decision to Dump Early American History"

Happy to report that History News Network is running my piece on South Dakota’s decision to stop teaching early American history in public schools:

In case you haven’t heard, the South Dakota Board of Education has dumped early American history from its K-12 curriculum.
When I heard about this decision, a quote from one of the great nineteenth-century observers of American life came to mind.  During the 1830s a French aristocrat named Alexis de Tocqueville traveled throughout the United States and studied the character of American society.  His observations would later be published in his Democracy in America—a work that is just as important to our national identity today as it was when it first appeared in 1835. 
In Chapter Two of Democracy in America Tocqueville laments the way that individualism—an idea at the heart of American democracy—destroys a citizen’s appreciation of the past. 
“Among democratic nations,” he wrote, “new families are constantly springing up, others are constantly falling away, and all that remain change their condition; the woof of time is every instant broken and the track of generations effaced. Those who went before are soon forgotten; those who will come after, no one has any idea; the interest of man is confined to those in close propinquity to himself.” 
Tocqueville understood that sometimes in a democratic society we become so addicted to the present that we forget where we came from.  We lose touch with history—the subject that provides us with our identity as Americans. 
Now that early American history is no longer part of the curriculum, it is very unlikely that a student in the public schools of South Dakota will ever read Tocqueville’s quote. 
The decision of the South Dakota Board of Education seems to be based on the idea that early American history is not important because it occurred so long ago and has no relevance for the present.  The Board of Education seems to think that history is merely the memorization of dates, timelines, and names. 
The decision is also based on a very thin view of citizenship.  How can students understand what it means to be a citizen of South Dakota or the United States without understanding that everything that they encounter in the present is rooted in a historic context?  
History is more than memorization.  It teaches students that current events are contingent on the events that came before them.  History teaches us the root causes of the things that happen in our world today.  
When students learn about context, contingency, and causation they develop a deeper—more robust—understanding of the world around them.


Read the rest here.

Historians: How Does Research In Pedagogy Inform Your Teaching?

Ben Wright, a historian at the University of Texas at Dallas, challenges his fellow history professors to start reading scholarship related to pedagogy.  He even uses the label “anti-intellectual” to describe those professors who are unwilling to engage with such literature or who look upon this literature with condescension.

Here is a taste of his post at Teaching United States History:

I should confess that I came to the profession of “professing” after receiving an undergraduate training in “teaching.” In fact, this article takes me back to my undergraduate education and the whiplash I often felt when walking out of an educational psychology class and into a history course. I recall how impressed I was by the scholarly rigor of education researchers and the evidence they produced to indicate the difference between effective and ineffective instruction. And then I remember the bemusement I felt an hour later by realizing that my history professor clearly never read a word of this scholarship.
Ignorance is one thing, but outright hostility is quite another, and the tone of this article, and of some of the enthusiasm I’ve noticed around it, evinces a dismissal and even condescension to the academic fields of education research. I would even go so far as to call this attitude an anti-intellectualism. Is this outlook toward the academic study of education any less disrespectful and misguided than what we sometimes get from members of the public who feel that Bill O’Reilly’s study of Abraham Lincoln has the same measure of legitimacy as Eric Foner’s?
We all have a standard answer to the question, “how does your research inform your teaching?” but what would happen if if interviewees began asking, “how does research in pedagogy inform your teaching?” Our guild appears to hold the belief that learning how to teach is mostly a matter of general intelligence, experience, and hard work. Most of us receive little-to-no training in how to teach. We are thrust into teaching assistantships and expected to figure it out on the fly. And we do, but this trial by fire approach teaches us more how to survive and less how to ensure the best possible outcomes for our students. Discussions of learning outcomes, best practices, or education psychology too often get dismissed as administrator meddling or an academia adrift in lowering standards. The “tough love” approach epitomized in the article stands in for rigorous engagement with research.
Wright is right.  If we want more students to get excited about history we need to be more committed to teaching. And yes, this will require reading scholarship related to pedagogy.
Wright lists several places where historians might begin to explore this scholarship.  They include The Review of Higher Education, Review of Education Research, and Contemporary Educational Psychology.  These are probably all great journals that include articles that will make us become better teachers, but not every historian is going to have the time or inclination to read them.
But maybe historians will read literature on scholarship related specifically to teaching history–literature published in history journals, magazines, or history blogs and websites. Sam Wineburg, Lendol Calder, Caleb McDaniel, the folks responsible for The History Teacher, and others are doing great work on this front.  I know that Wright is familiar with this work.  
Rather than encouraging historians to tackle specialized pedagogy and education journals, I think the best we can expect is that more historians like Wright will emerge  to serve as brokers who are willing to bring the best of this literature to those of use who work in the history classroom.

Sam Wineburg on Writing

Anyone who has been reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home, has been to one of my teacher seminars, or has taken a class with me at Messiah College, knows that I am a big fan of the work of Sam Wineburg.  

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education, Rachel Toor interviews Wineburg about his writing habits.  Toor mentions that Wineburg approached her for help in reaching popular audiences with his work.  What struck me the most about Wineburg’s request is that his book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts has sold over 40,000 copies!  I would say that any book that sells 40,000 copies is reaching a public audience!  On the other hand, I am thrilled to learn Wineburg will be reaching even more readers in the future.  

Here is a taste of Toor’s interview:

Can you talk about your development as a writer?
Wineburg: My freshman tutor at Brown University was Steven Millhauser, then a doctoral student, who went on to win a Pulitzer Prize for fiction. I arrived in Providence thinking I knew how to write. Millhauser put a quick end to that. To this day, one of his summary comments sits framed on my desk. A-minus was the grade, and his comment began, “A strong paper, carefully considered and forcefully argued.” But then came the line I’ll never forget: “The better you are, the more imperative it becomes to rid yourself of all the evidences of amateurishness, carelessness, and flawed education that your paper, good as it is, still reveals.” Mr. Millhauser — Mister is how we addressed him — taught me that the two most important tools a writer has are his ears. The most important things I learned about writing I learned during the first semester of my freshman year in college.
Over the years, I’ve had to learn to embrace my own voice. I had inklings of this understanding even as a high-school student, when I excelled at news writing for the school paper but felt less capable with human-interest stories. Experience has taught me to listen to my voice rather than trying to mimic others. It’s hard, because as humans we compare ourselves endlessly to others. We read terrific writing and say to ourselves, “Boy, I want to write like that.” And how I’ve tried, endlessly imitating voices that aren’t my own. Then, one day when reading a book by my favorite Israeli novelist, Aharon Appelfeld, I came across these lines, “If there is meaning to the words of an author it is because he is true to himself, his voice, and his pace. His subject, his thesis are byproducts of his writing, not its essence.” These words sit framed on my desk as well.

Why History Majors Should Study Abroad

51+5s2KxXOLThis post from Kathryn Kaslow, a history major at Messiah College, recently appeared on our department blog “History on the Bridge.” Katy spent the Fall semester studying at Oxford.  This semester she is working hard as my research assistant on the American Bible Society book.  

Messiah College history majors cannot graduate without fulfilling an experiential learning requirement.  One of the ways of satisfying this requirement is to study in another country and take at least one history course.

Enjoy Katy’s post:

If there is one thing every history major should do before he or she graduates, it is study abroad.  After studying abroad in England last semester, I am convinced that in addition to being enriching, fun, cultural opportunities that can be used to enhance one’s résumé, study abroad experiences offer several unique takeaways for history majors in particular:
1) Here’s the obvious reason: If one is studying in a non-English-speaking country, study abroad is a prime opportunity to brush up on the language skills that are sometimes necessary for reading primary sources.  After all, there is no better way to learn a foreign language than to be immersed in it!
2) Sometimes studying abroad means being exposed to a different educational style.  When I studied abroad in England, instead of having lectures and exams, I was required to write between one and two essays each week and verbally debate the arguments presented in those essays with a tutor.  Participating in such a unique and writing-intensive educational system where I was required to articulate original ideas instead of simply memorizing facts to regurgitate on a multiple-choice exam honed both my critical thinking and my writing skills, both of which are essential for history majors to master.
3) Finally, history majors should study abroad because it involves living in a new and foreign culture.  It requires being willing to put aside one’s own culture to learn how to efficiently function in another.  It requires being aware of cultural differences and learning how to either work through or live with them.  It requires a desire to understand the mindset of the people among whom one is living.  In short, as Messiah College history major Cassy Baddorf pointed out in a recent blog post, studying abroad is a practice in empathy, both for culture and for other people.  In the words of novelist L.P. Hartley and historian David Lowenthal: “The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there”; if one learns this discipline in real life, it will become easier to put these principles into practice when studying history.  According to Sam Wineburg, when we practice this kind of empathy, we become better historians: “For the narcissist sees the world – both the past and the present – in his own image.  Mature historical knowing teaches us to do the opposite: to go beyond our own image, to go beyond our brief life, and to go beyond the fleeting moment in human history into which we have been born.  History educates (‘lead outward’ in the Latin) in the deepest sense.”
Go and study abroad – it will be a transformative experience!
Kathryn Kaslow is a junior history major with a concentration in public history.  She is a research assistant, student diplomat for the History Department, History Club officer, and a contributor to History on the Bridge.