This post has been brewing for a while now, since the heady days of summer when I was free to spend my time reading to my heart’s content: books, magazines, blog posts, random news articles, the newspaper… you name it. And while I was doing all of that reading and thinking, something occurred to me. It’s not a particularly original thought, but rather one of those simple ideas that hits you square between the eyes.
As I read article after article about the 2016 presidential campaign, I reflected on the fact that my professional raison d’etre—like many history teachers—centers on preparing my students for active and engaged citizenship. I would love for just one of my students to pursue a career as a historian (or history teacher), but I know that most of them won’t. All of them, however, will become citizens.
To that end, I try to teach them how to think historically—which is to say, how to think critically about social issues, mindful of matters like context, causation, change, complexity, and contingency. I also try to think them how to read sources—whether 400 year old primary sources or contemporary op-eds—with an eye for bias and to corroborate the information they gather.
As I found myself drowning in reading material this summer, though, it occurred to me how difficult it is to corroborate in this age of information overload. Once we teach students how to corroborate—and why it is so important—we set them loose into a world with an overwhelming surfeit of information. Moreover, our “sources” are simultaneously proliferating and becoming ideologically fixed (or, at the very least, they are coming to be labeled as such by parties which disagree with their conclusions).
This leaves us more open than ever to the problem of confirmation bias. Worse, we may even fool ourselves into thinking we have corroborated our information by locating it in several different sources. This is a serious problem in the age of information.
As I ruminated about this and contemplated this post, I came across this article from Sam Wineburg of the Stanford History Education Group. (It is actually an excerpt from his keynote before the American Association for State and Local History last year.) As with just about everything Wineburg writes, it should be required reading for history teachers. Here are a few key quotations from the piece, along with my brief thoughts about each one:
It was obviously never the case that just because something was printed meant that it was true. At the same time, we often ceded authority to established publishers. We relied on them to make sure that what we read was accurate, that it had gone through rounds of criticism before it reached our eyes. . . . The Internet has obliterated authority. . . . We live in an age when you can practice historiography without a license.
I suspect Wineburg is playing to his audience here, but I love this notion of practicing historiography “without a license.” His point, of course, is about the decline of authority in the internet age, but in fact, Wineburg’s scholarship seeks just this outcome. If he had his way, all students would become adept at thinking like historians, which would make a “license” (by which I assume he means a formal credential) even less relevant.
The first thing that historical study teaches is that there is no such thing as free-floating information. Information comes from somewhere.
A simple but often overlooked point. Wineburg has a knack for the pithy phrase, and if we had to sum up the value of a history education in ten words or less (an absurd idea, of course), this last sentence would put us on the right path.
[We] are living in an age where technological changes of how information is disseminated and distributed far outpaces our ability to keep up with it. The tools we have invented are handling us—not us them.
Echoes of Thoreau here. We’ve built systems for developing content and making it readily available to the masses, but without tools for critically assessing that content, we risk losing sight of the idea that “Information comes from somewhere.”
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.
It may be semantic, but I would challenge Wineburg to go farther here. I would change “reliable information” to “an engaged and critical citizenry,” and where he writes of “civic intelligence,” I would use “civic health.” After all, the goal here goes far beyond simply “intelligence,” and as Wineburg himself makes clear, that doesn’t depend on reliable information so much as on citizens’ ability to assess the information they encounter.
The fact of the matter is that Wineburg advocates for serious reform of the way history is taught in this country, much in the same way that Rachel Carson (author of Silent Spring) and others called for environmental reforms. To hope for “reliable information” is naive—akin to Rachel Carson asking pollution to clean itself up. Instead, what we need are mechanisms for dealing with all the information out there. Just as the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act paid dividends for public health, teaching students how to navigate the rising tide of information will improve civic health.