The Internet has been called the greatest and most powerful collection of human knowledge ever assembled. In a way it is the ultimate encyclopedia, and it just keeps growing. It is open, accessible, and deeply democratic, not only for the people who want to browse through it, but also for anyone who wants to add to it.
The openness of the Internet has a dark side, however. The Internet is a place where anyone can say anything. Unlike a real encyclopedia, there are no editors, no fact checkers, no one to make sure that what is said is accurate, true, or well-intentioned. So, mixed in with this richest of all collections of human knowledge are propaganda, misinformation, lies, slander, irrational expressions of hatred, and the very strange causes and arguments of some very strange people. Anyone can have a voice to address the world. Maybe the Internet is like the whole human psyche opened up for everyone to see, with examples of the very best and worst of human nature side-by-side.
If everyone can access the best and worst of information on a world-wide scale, it changes the nature of education. Learning cannot just be memorizing pre-selected knowledge from books and teachers. We have to be able to enter into the world of the Internet and independently tell the difference between what is valid and what is misleading or wrong. The Internet can be a dangerous place. It can inform and illuminate, but it can also mislead and distort, and we have to be able to tell the difference between the two on our own.
The name we have given to our website, learntoquestion, is central to how we think we have to approach all the information at our fingertips. One very important area that requires questioning and skepticism is the study of history. Rather than just being a simple record of what happened in the past, where there is no space between the event and the story, history is told from a point of view and involves selection and interpretation.
Good, reputable historians carefully follow rules of evidence and make clear to everyone how they came to the conclusions that they have made. We can follow the path that they have taken. However, on the Internet there are all kinds of people who are not historians but who are making statements about history without any evidence or clear logic. The Internet has more than its share of bazaar interpretations of the past.
Our introductory lesson is aimed at beginning to think about these issues. History is more complicated and controversial than one might imagine. It is important to learn to question historical interpretations and to begin to identify some of the traits of bad historical thinking. This will just be a start, but it is the beginning of a very important journey
History as Selection and Interpretation
One of our Ancient History teachers wanted her 8th graders to think deeply about the nature of history, so she created an unusual introduction to her course. She asked her students to identify five significant events in their lives and explain their choices. When they had completed the assignment, the class discussed and compared their answers.
Next, the students were assigned to interview a parent, or someone in the generation before theirs, and to ask the same question about five significant events. The class then discussed the range and nature of significant events that their parents had identified. As a final step in this investigation, the students interviewed grandparents, or someone from two generations back. They then discussed what the parents of their parents thought was most significant in their own lives.
Interesting patterns emerged in the responses of the different groups. Ask the question yourself across generations and see what you discover. One outcome easy to anticipate is that as people live longer and experience more events, their sense of significance changes. In a way, our lives, our personal histories, are a work in progress, and we reassess what is most memorable or important in them repeatedly as we grow older.
The Ancient History teacher then explained to the students that every one of them has a history. Their parents and grandparents all have histories that are interpreted and reinterpreted.. History is not just something in a history book. It is not just the lives of kings and queens, wars and presidents, laws past, and treaties written.
If we all have histories, the Ancient history teacher asked, where does the History in the book come from, the one that in a sense has the big capital H? If we all have histories, who picks what gets put in and what gets left out of the history book? Who decides the questions about significance when the story being told is meant to capture our times?
At any moment, there are a zillion different things going on in the world. They are all the stuff that History could be written about. Looking back at any point in the past, historians find records or evidence of a small part of those happenings. Even that tiny part is often so big and expansive that it is overwhelming. So historians, like our students and parents above, try to pick out the significant events. They find patterns and look for causes and effects. Whatever they do, it is a fragment of something much larger that is impossible to grasp completely. It is important to hold in mind that written history involves selection and interpretation and that History is written from a point of view.
The Head of the History Department at Boston Latin offered a fascinating insight into this process of selection and the writing of History. He said that the present has a powerful influence over how we see the past. We look back in time through the lens of our current beliefs, ideas, values, and goals. As those change, so do important historical interpretations. After the Revolutionary War, England was depicted in America as a tyrant and oppressor. In the First World War, we were England’s ally, and we had become much more like our erstwhile enemy. In our History, we revised many of our grievances against England. In the 1930’s during the Great Depression, economics became an important lens for looking at the past. Sometimes, our History Department Head said, History can be as much a window on the time when it was written as on the point in the past that it is addressing.
In some high school history classes, History is taught as if were chiseled in stone, a big block of stuff to memorize that is complete and unchanging – the last word. But, there really is not a last word, and almost any event or person mentioned in the history book is the subject of countless articles and even full-length books by historians. If you researched those topics or people – moved beneath the surface and more deeply into the layers of History – you would often find that the aura of complete certainty that high school history books convey disappears. There are unresolved issues and controversies over interpretations, missing or contradictory evidence – many uncertainties – and even the facts that we are certain about may evoke new interpretations over time. Too often high school history books gloss over these rich and challenging issues and just skim the surface.
You have to go beneath that surface in order really to experience the study of History. Rather than always just accepting the second-hand account that you are given to learn, sometimes you have to wrestle with first-hand materials, research the controversies through primary sources, understand deeply the different sides of a debate, and make up your own mind. Rather than just filling your head with stuff, History should make you learn to think for yourself.
So, what is to be made of all of this? Well, you have to decide. Do not just take notes and yawn. Grab something here and wrestle with it. Throw it to the floor, and see if it gets back up. Who does pick what gets put in and what gets left out of the history books? Who does decide the questions about significance? The world happens in all its countless ways, and then human beings try to find some pattern or order in it all. The History that we study is a logical story created by human beings, who make selections, judgments, and interpretations. And those change over time. The great lump of the past does not come to us neatly shaped. We shape it and reshape it.
Textbook publishers used to produce two versions of the Civil War in their American History books, one to sell in the North and one to sell in the South. Did those two sets of textbooks contain two different, legitimate points of view? Was one a lie? Where they possibly both lies? Does anybody still do it? Would it bother you to know that someone was fiddling with your history book to make it non-controversial to the adults where you live? If selection, judgment, and interpretation play such a powerful role in the crafting of History, can you really study it without controversy?
A powerful starting point for most learning is to raise questions rather than just memorize answers. Break the usually calm surface of textbook History, raise questions, be a skeptical learner in a world of hustles and flimflam, look at the original sources, the real core, and make up your own mind.
Hold this in mind though: the fact that historical interpretations evolve and change does not mean that History can be bent and molded anyway anyone wants. That points back to some of the really nutty ideas on the Internet. Historical interpretations should not be just one set of opinions against another. In the crafting of good, solid history, there are rules of logic and evidence that govern legitimate historical thinking. If you are going to raise questions and be a skeptical learner, you have to be able to separate good from bad historical thinking. And you have to understand that many people distort history for their own purposes. What is so important is that you can identify them yourself.