Response to Wineburg

In this activity, begin by reflecting on your reading of Sam Wineburg’s “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.

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 tools to promote a more accurate understanding of the past? Write a blog post that explores these questions.

I think Wineburg’s analysis is spot-on, and the scenarios that he describes are ones that I’ve worried about before. The Internet has a tendency to show you what you want to see (algorithms, anyone?), and so it can be bad for pluralism and worse for bigotry. Historical thinking, Wineburg argues, is not just limited to academic journals and doorstop textbooks. We need to apply historical thinking to all Internet readings. Yes, that does sound exhausting just writing about it, but media literacy (a term I prefer to historical thinking) is like a muscle that becomes easier to use when it is constantly exercised. I would also add rhetoric to a list of must-knows when it comes to media literacy, as recognized ad hominem attacks, for instance, will help you in establishing whether you should continue reading an article. Which rhetorical styles move an argument along? Also, check when you’re getting incredibly angry. Anger is the main motivator behind low-handed rhetoric and false facts.

When it comes to public perceptions of the past, I think it’s important for historians–from the renowned authors to the first-year graduate students–to put it out there, whether on Facebook or at an in-person event, that they are willing to talk about things like the Holocaust and Confederate monuments, especially if those subjects fall under their area of expertise. We need to take the first step and extend a hand, allow people to ask questions because they are genuinely curious. These conversations about the motivations behind the Confederacy can’t stay behind academic organizations, nor should they. The public would benefit from historians answering basic questions, even–especially–for adults who might be too embarrassed to ask what they think is “common knowledge.”

I didn’t know about or However, tools like those remind me that the Internet isn’t a completely bad place. There are tools made specifically to help you rather than to sell you something. Some creators do have the best intentions in mind, which can be hard to remember when you’re trudging through Amazon comments. I would add that the plethora of untrustworthy/untrue information out there can only be combatted with accessible information and sources.