Four young children writing on the classroom blackboard, circa 1950.
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book review / memory

Why Read "Why Learn History"

(When It’s Already Summarized in This Article?)
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In his book, Wineburg lays the blame for this sorry state of affairs on the standard American educational system, which he says has been “stuck in the past” for decades, neglecting to teach foundational skills that would help students confront these problems. He attacks resources and institutions that have long been popular among many history educators—standardized testing, the Department of Education’s Teaching American History initiative, and Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—as having “relegate[ed] students to roles as absorbers, not analysts of information.”

Wineburg does more than just eviscerate modern instruction, however; he also offers some semi-encouraging notes—students today are no less intelligent than their grandparents were, he writes. Despite popular and often politicized claims that US history education has declined from a past golden age, Wineburg cites evidence that standardized history test results have remained steady over the last century. Kids from the “Greatest Generation” confused 1492 and 1776 in the same way that their modern-day counterparts do. Wineburg argues that this “kids these days” mentality simply distracts us from the real problem. He writes, “Test results over the last hundred years point to a peculiar American neurosis: each generation’s obsession with testing its young, only to discover—and rediscover—their ‘shameful’ ignorance.”

According to Wineburg, the issue is not that students are ignorant of names and dates. In fact, as he points out, even the most accomplished specialists in the discipline could flunk a multiple-choice test on an area of history they are unfamiliar with. It’s more of a tragedy, he argues, that students are made to memorize facts instead of learning the critical-thinking skills that equip their minds to discern context, sniff out biases, and employ reasoned skepticism when evaluating sources. And standard-issue history textbooks don’t provide these skills, either. Burdened under the yoke of Scantrons, wasted tax dollars, and turgid textbooks, the vast majority of students are ill-prepared, he writes, to face the challenges of the digital age.

In the meantime, “the Internet has obliterated authority,” Wineburg thunders in his book’s introduction. Anyone with an Internet connection can write “history,” publish it on the web, and claim it as fact, no submission or peer-review process necessary. Wineburg challenges educators to think about how their instruction needs to change in order to meet these challenges. “Historians by and large still treat the world like a print world,” he comments. “My response to them would be—do you still wait in line at the bank to go deposit your checks? Do you still have a thick stack of maps in your glove compartment that you would take to an unknown destination? And if you do, I can bet that the notes for your lectures are dog-eared yellow.
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