Historical Thinking and Digital Media

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

Wineburg points out the effects of change in how the public receives history and by that how it perceives and thinks about it. While “Back in the uncomplicated pre-Web days, libraries and archives were places of quiet stability and authority,” (Wineburg) today “The Internet has obliterated [this} authority.” Does this allow the public to know more history? Does easy and instant access to information promote a broader perception of history? Wineburg shows the pitfalls and dangers of real or alternative facts as they are circulating in the media. Surprisingly, digital natives do not seem to question the facts presented. When anyone who wishes to comment or contribute to past or present history is able and allowed to do so, our level of caution and skepticism should rise.

I can personally relate to Wineburg’s example of high school students being persuaded by articles floating on the web that the Holocaust never happened or it was  Jewish propaganda. Several years ago, after having 6th grade students read Behind the Bedroom Wall by Laura E. Williams, they gave presentations about Nazi camps that resembled a youth summer camp today. They believed that people who were imprisoned had a fairly good life, having food, bed, and friendship. The fictional account of the Holocaust, the hunting of Jews, and their research in the Internet did not paint a “real” picture. As a person who was born not so long after the war and grew up in Europe surrounded by reminders of it, I could never ignore or not know the atrocities of the Holocaust. It was ever present and never doubted. I was simply shocked by my students’ interpretation. How could they not see the obvious facts? What was missing? What aspects of their readings derailed the thinking and perception of history? What could I do to enable their thinking and ability to question and have an opened mind? Wineburg iterated historical thinking by explaining the “treshold concept,” when he discussed students’ difficulties making sense of the past. He noted thatwe are called to expand our conception and understanding of what it means to be human and examine seemingly irrelevant material to discover the relevance of the past. Thus the question arises, How could we make, for example, the Holocaust relevant to their present?

Wineburg refers to Thomas Jefferson in his article, “Historical Thinking is Not About History” saying that 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. Teachers of history should keep this in mind as they set students free on the Internet for historical research and educate them about what informed citizenship means in the digital age. They should question the credibility of sources, what information should be believed, and caution them about the massive amount of facts and the equally large amount of bias. Using his two highly recommended tools (whois.net andwww.website.com) to incorporate in student research should be a must for history teachers. We must teach students a critical/analytical approach to media, the Internet, and historical research in general to avoid becoming a “a Prologue to a Farce or a Tragedy; or, perhaps both”. As Wineburg concludes, knowledge is power, and we should empower our students to seek that knowledge above popular belief. We must teach historical thinking, the query, the analysis, the discussion of facts so students will become informed citizens who are able to make sense of history in the digital age.

 Wineburg, Sam. “Why Historical Thinking is Not About History.” History News 71, no. 2. 2016.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *