Teaching Corroboration in the Age of Information Overload

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.

Sam Wineburg

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.

  1. Ben Walsh said:

    Enjoyed this post. I have long felt Wineburg has done valuable service but would like to go further still. Much of Wineburg’s utterings, and the SHEG resources, are predicated on corroborating what a source says. Implicit in this is that a source is correct or incorrect. At least that is how many students tend to view it. In practice this then unfortunately tends to result in a mindset which equates to ‘the source does not say the same as the textbook so it must be no good’. Obviously this is not thinking historically. We would never produce anything new if there were absolute right answers we have to measure up to.
    So thinking historically clearly does include checking for intention, motive etc – we do not simply accept Nazi materials on Jews as true about Jews. We do not blithely accept what Trump says without corroborating. But where historians really start thinking is when they consider not what the source says but what it can tell us (I find this distinction very useful with students even if it flirts with self-contradiction) – ie not solely what we can find in its face value content but what we can infer based on tone, emphasis, use of language, knowledge of context, knowledge of provenance and or purpose. That Nazi source about Jews is reliable. It is valuable to historians. It says certain things about Jews which we dismiss. But it tells us a ton of things about Nazi beliefs, aims, methods etc. So too with the utterings of Trump or any other player trying to influence opinion. So perhaps we need to move past even the valuable question: ‘is this source useful / reliable?’ to the even more valuable question ‘what would the historian (or engaged citizen) find this source useful / reliable about?’.

    • Matt said:

      Thanks for the comment, Ben. I think you raise an outstanding point–historical thinking occurs on (at least) two levels. What does the source say, and to what extent can we believe it? Beyond that, regardless of its accuracy, what can we learn from it about the context in which it was created? Trump is probably a great example of this. Many of his comments, particularly about Muslims and Mexicans, have been demonstrably false. Nevertheless, they resonate with a significant portion of the American population. So what does that tell us?

      This brings to mind the terms from statistics “reliability” and “validity.” Adapting them for a different use, we might say that “validity” involves the accuracy of the source itself, in terms of its contemporary claims. (Were they true in their time?) On the other hand, “reliability” might involve what the source can “reliably teach us” as historians, aside from its validity in its own time and place. I’m sure we could come up with better terms, but that comes to mind as a rough rubric for assessing sources.

      I appreciate the second comment as well. The sources look interesting, so I’ll be sure to take a look at the links later and offer my thoughts.

  2. Ben Walsh said:

    As a follow up, these two sources are interesting …

    Can we accept the picture painted by the letter? It would be hard to corroborate. And this is not an ‘innocent’ source – it is loaded with personal experience and has a particular aim. But to dismiss it for being biased is to miss its value. Its bias is its strength, in showing the impact of state policies on an individual, surely it is a great source.

    Similarly the film is biased. Maybe there were female tractor drivers, maybe not. Maybe they believed the way the film says, maybe not. Corroboration would be difficult. But as evidence of the impression the regime wanted people to see, and the techniques used – very powerful source. Historians would not dismiss this because it is propaganda, they would say it is valuable because the nature of the propaganda issued by the regime reveals much about the regime itself.

    • Matt said:

      Terrific sources indeed, Ben. Thanks for sharing! I would add a few more questions (beyond the ones we’ve already enumerated) involved in historical thinking here:

      1) Regarding the letter: beyond the content itself, are there any issues with the translation? Who translated it, and when? What might his/her motive have been? In a source such as this, even a seemingly minor substitution/addition/deletion of words could have a drastic effect on the tone of the letter.

      2) Who created this website (Socialism Realised)? What is its purpose, and what led the creator(s) to select these particular sources? What sources have they possibly not included, and why?

      3) What about the commentaries? Though written in an objective, textbook-esque tone, they too should be subject to analysis. Do the commentaries appear to tilt in one direction or the other? What specific language do the commentaries use that might reveal the author’s views on the source?

      I often find that when I assign primary sources which include a paragraph or two of introductory context, students prefer discussing that to discussing the source itself. They eventually come to realize that the sources are often biased, but they seldom apply the same critical scrutiny to the collection and presentation of sources. (Similarly, I sometimes explicitly ask them to examine the topics/sources I’ve chosen for inclusion in the classroom. After all, teaching history—-like writing it—-involves selection, prioritization, and interpretation.)

  3. Ben Walsh said:

    Some interesting points there Matt.
    1 I was inclined to think that the translations were as secure as they can be given that the original documents are also provided.

    2 This is a much more interesting question isn’t it? They do provide information about their project on their home page but the authors are clearly sympathetic to those living under dictatorial regimes. The selection and supporting commentary are very interesting in that when we look at these they turn the whole web site into a source. The source is now less the content in it (what I call the story in the source) but what we can infer from the act of its creation / publication (what I call the story of the source).

    3 The commentaries link into this another great question! I absolutely agree about student behaviours re commentaries, sources etc. I have tried activities which ask them to study a source and decide what historical questions could this source answer? It is very rewarding but it is also very hard work as it asks them to swim against the tide of their natural inclinations and indeed the general culture of school.

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