Phonies and the Past

“History is not an American pastime,” Kevin Honold emphasizes in the Hudson Review, in a sonorous tract of musings about the Ohio heartland, Jesuit missionaries and the Age of Explorers; childhood and the imagination; the strategic advantage of trees for empire; plumbers; and the fate of the American Indian warrior. In sympathetic step with generations of social studies educators, Honold thinks this is explained in part by how history is taught to American schoolchildren: “As a thing from which they are meant to draw ‘lessons,’ as though history were a series of unfortunate incidents involving hot skillets and monkey cages.” Textbook history—history presented as moralizing schoolmarm or anodyne roll call of names and dates—fuels why advocates today lament but excuse teenagers’ lack of cranial investment in historical literacy.

“Textbook history” certainly doesn’t seem like an American pastime. Not only do we have ample evidence year after year that Americans of all ages and backgrounds barely know the highlight reel of their nation’s past, but even history’s professional practitioners also struggle to formulate a rationale for their subject that resonates. Alan Mikhail of Yale University recently implied as much in comments to the American Historical Association, in light of the discovery that history has had the sharpest (and starkest) decline out of all majors at US colleges and universities. Nor have the expert historians seemed able to persuade school principals, much less the general public, away from materially acceding history class to Google’s infinite yield of search returns.

History barely ranks as a classroom pastime: A subsumed subject in the social studies curriculum, history today takes up far less than ten percent of at least a public school student’s classroom time. In the age of a Tablet for every desk and an iPhone for every pocket, we seem to have moved beyond the need even to ask why students ought to study history, given what’s supplied by the tools at our fingertips.

Perhaps in acknowledgment of this attitude, Sam Wineburg, professor of education and history at Stanford University, chooses not to register the challenge of technology to historical literacy as a question to muse philosophically about. His recent monograph, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), isn’t a question; it’s an ex post facto statement from Silicon Valley. Masquerading as an accessible weekend read for civics advocates and interested laymen, the book is something of a gauntlet heaved at public handwringers about historical illiteracy, and especially against their historical assumptions about historical literacy and its role in sustaining democracy.

Wineburg has no patience for the handwringers. And frankly, it’s refreshing to settle in to a thesis favoring history because of technology, and that is not the next iteration of the Glumly-Go-Round Argument: America is doomed because American children don’t ace their multiple choice history tests, which dooms their ability to be self-governing citizens, which dooms America’s future. Wineburg finds this strain of worrywartism to be less apocalyptic than annoying, even while acknowledging that it has old and august roots.

Indeed, ever since Benjamin Franklin’s famous hortatory in the wake of the Constitutional Convention, Americans have been paraprofessional Cassandras issuing dire warnings about the future of the American experiment given insufficient attention to the past. And arguably we’ve only gotten more persistent about that. But is it modern technology, modern pedagogy, contemporary political partisanship, or something within our democracy itself that explains our increasing need to test, measure, and then bemoan our fellow citizens’ ignorance about the dates for the wars of 1812, the Civil War, and World War II; whether Madison or Jefferson (or was that Jefferson Davis?) was the “Father of the Constitution”; the causes of the Flour Riots or the Haymarket Affair or the Bonus Army; not to mention about basic constitutional structure and design, or whether FDR’s “Second Bill of Rights” officially replaced the original Bill of Rights?

More pointedly: If historical ignorance dooms the American experiment, how has America endured for over two hundred years?

But more profoundly: Has America endured because of, or despite, the very worrywartism that Wineburg dismisses?

Of Ignorance, and Manufactured Ignorance

Since J. Carleton Bell of the Brooklyn Training School for Teachers and his colleague David F. McCollum first issued a large-scale test of historical facts to Texas students in 1917, we’ve tested our youth on historical minutiae and perpetually found them wanting. Professor Wineburg would have us know that with every iteration of the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) since it was first administered in 1987, students’ subpar results in history and civics have provoked similar public reactions of horror as greeted Bell’s and McCollum’s findings. They’ve all been iterations of then-president of the National Council for the Social Studies Kim O’Neil’s response, in 2015: “How do we, as a nation, maintain our status in the world if future generations of Americans do not understand our nation’s history?” Likewise, Bernard Bailyn’s exclamation about test and survey results in 1976: “Absolutely shocking.”

Such reactions are trite and predictable, Wineburg argues, because Americans’ infamous ignorance is more manufactured than real, courtesy of the internal logic of standardized testing: “As practiced by the big testing companies, modern psychometrics guarantees that test results will conform to a symmetrical bell curve.” The point of bell curve testing is not to show that students have absorbed knowledge, or to assess whether they are historically literate, but to “create spread” among students. In order to do that, the Education Testing Service (ETS) statisticians discard questions for which the majority of responders might know the correct answer (such as identifying George Washington or “The Star-Spangled Banner”) and introduce instead questions about disparate historical minutiae (John F. Hartranft, the battle(s) of Fort Wagner, and Benjamin Gitlow), which sizeable shares of students will most likely not recognize.

This assessment methodology reinforces the already-bad habit of the typical history teacher, teaching from the typical history textbook, and in line with state-mandated curricular standards, of emphasizing lists of disconnected names and dates for students to memorize and hemorrhage forth at the appointed moment. Wineburg takes the textbooks, their publishers and their promoters—whether in state legislatures or nonprofits—to task for being captured by special interests, heavier than a “Duraflame log,” and the prime suspect for reducing the “intrinsically human character” of history to a pile of nonsense information.

From this standpoint, Wineburg argues that (more conservative leaning) critics of supposed progressive teachings in social studies, like E.D. Hirsch, have missed the mark about what ails history class.

As long as textbooks dominate instruction, as long as states continue to play a ‘mine is bigger than your’ standards game, as long as historians roll over and play dead when faced with number-wielding psychometricians, we can have all the blue-ribbon commissions we want… but the results will remain the same.

But contrary to the expectations of more progressive critics of history class, for whom the standard American history textbook is propaganda of the worse sort, Howard Zinn and A People’s History of the United States is also not the answer. Of that, Wineburg is adamantly sure. Despite Zinn’s cultural popularity for being a smash-all-the-patriarchy-narratives anti-textbook, his 729-paged tome speaks as authoritatively, one-sidedly, and inaccurately as a typical textbook, “albeit one that claims to be morally superior.”

In an extensive chapter cheekily titled “Committing Zinns,” Wineburg excavates the case against Zinn, helpfully showing the reader through a series of particular examples how Zinn’s method shuts off historical inquiry by discarding “unruly fibers of evidence” in asking of history “yes-type questions” that appear to prove a broad claim, and by asking them in such a narrative style that our emotions and sense of justice are immediately engaged even while exploiting our “expected ignorance.” “They’re all phonies is a message that never goes out of style,” is Wineburg’s summation of Zinn’s popularity. That popularity is more concerning to Wineburg than Zinn’s actual (mis)interpretations, because it means that Zinn is often now the only encounter with American history that students (and their teachers) have—and that encounter is malforming. Zinn strikes at the very core of what the history discipline is: historical inquiry, a way of thinking critically, one that Wineburg argues lets us acknowledge nuance and ambiguity.

History, for Wineburg, is about knowledge, yes, but it’s more about an approach to knowledge: “It’s about determining what questions to ask in order to generate new knowledge.” This is not your trademarked pyramid of Bloom’s Taxonomy of Educational Objectives “critical thinking,” in which knowledge undergirds understanding, and proceeds to application, hence to analysis, hence to synthesis, culminating with evaluation. Nor is it the “close reading” critical thinking encouraged by the Common Core State Standards, which has students focus on the words of texts but divorced from context. It’s a unique way of acquiring knowledge through repeated, reevaluating inquiry:

The past bequeaths jagged fragments that thwart most attempts to form a complete picture. Determining cause is less about isolating a mechanism than knitting together a textured understanding that withstands scrutiny at different levels and grain sizes. Parsimony in historical explanation often flirts with superficial reductionism.

In emphasizing the “jagged fragments” of history demanding a “textured understanding,” Wineburg nods in the direction of fellow historian Wilfred McClay, who likewise presents history as “a way of knowing what facts are worth attending to… that fit a template of meaning, and point to a larger whole.”

History, understood as a knowledge-gaining inquiry, Wineburg has come to see as a “subcategory of something larger—a broader, more encompassing way of thinking about information in the social world.” And here is the point towards which Wineburg has been building all along: Fluency in navigating the system of exhibiting knowledge, whether through the device of a standardized bubble test or a device with Google access, is no substitute for comprehension of that information. Google is a tool; the Encyclopedia is a tool. A good memory for listicles of facts was never the point of history class. And to the extent that the reductio ad bubble test has become the complacent norm for history class built off of that assumption, we’ve invited the conclusion that Google can save us from our ignorance, our bad textbooks, and bad teachers. But “Google can’t save us,” argues Wineburg—neither the students, nor the professors, nor democracy.

“Most of us suck at judging what flows across our screens.” Wineburg was shocked to discover that your typical professional historian, so careful in evaluating primary and secondary sources and weighing their various claims offline, is as easily snookered online as a ten-year old by such surface-level things as placement ranking in Google searches, official-sounding names, and nice fonts. His national survey of students’ Internet skills revealed that 59 percent of adults couldn’t tell the difference between an ad (“sponsored content”) and a news story, a finding that National Public Radio, Forbes, Slate, and the Wall Street Journal conveniently glossed over in their related stories convulsing, again, about ignorant kids these days. But with each of us equipped with our own powerful computing handheld phone, around whose convenience we increasingly build our lives, and our own propensities towards intellectual complacency given the strictures of time—are we condemned to be either neo-luddites or settle for phony intellects?

Wineburg resists this binary forking of solutions to the knowledge problems posed by the Internet. He argues that what’s needed is a combination of a new approach to consuming information online that’s more akin to what fact checkers instinctively do, and a redevelopment of historical inquiry and a commitment to it, by educators above all. Quoting Thomas Jefferson in light of the expansion of information presented by the Internet, Wineburg acknowledges that despite the “new reality [where] the ill-informed hold just as much power… as the well-informed… If we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

Uses and Abuses of Worrywortism for Democracy

“Education, Keeper of the Republic,” is an epithet that America’s founding generation, followed by scores of statesmen and thinkers, continually returned to in their arguments for how to perpetuate the American experiment of self-government. So much rightly depends upon the educators. But who are the educators? As a professional educator himself, Wineburg reasonably focuses on the formal educators in formal settings, teachers with degrees in primary or secondary education spaces, and the formal assessments which they give and the empirical data that students’ answers to those assessments provide. And yet by his own acknowledgement (students’ ignorance is manufactured ignorance), these measurements may not provide an accurate assessment of the true story of Americans’ rapport with history.

If historical knowledge is vital for American democracy, and if Americans have exhibited when tested a stubborn historical ignorance for a hundred years and yet the Republic still stands, is the premise wrong? Or are there predominantly qualitative means which better reveal Americans’ relationship with the past, because they extend beyond the narrow confines of pedagogy attached to a classroom?

To return to Kevin Honold’s essay, textbook history may very well not be an American pastime. But he is wrong to conflate the textbook loathing with history loathing, and on two accounts. As his own musings reveal, Americans as far away from the crisp classroom as journeyman plumbers on the line in Cincinnati are fascinated by the interwoven, complex, and compelling stories of human life that make up history. They love to buy and read books about swamp-fighting in South Carolina during the American Revolution and hedgerow fighting in Normandy during World War II, to thrill to the machinations of “Little Turtle, brilliant strategist of the Miami, whose confederacy… inflict[ed] the bloodiest defeat ever suffered by the American military at the hands of Native Americans,” and to trace their geographical, physical, and spiritual connection to those past moments, however tenuously.

Secondly, ever since Ben Franklin sounded the alarm, a favorite American pastime has been the ritual of bemoaning our lack of attention to the past. Why we bemoan the past and our peers’ ignorance of it, and how to meet that knowledge with more than apprehensive handwringing, and for what end, is a challenge that we are clearly still struggling to meet. And perhaps it isn’t so much our anxiety about the future or the past that fuels this ritual as it is a perpetual anxiety about our present, and how it will pan out for us in the short term, that influences us to look backward and yet feel inept about how to use that past.

Nearly half a century ago, political theorist Joseph Cropsey was alive to this restless tendency among Americans and pondered its wellsprings in his 1975 essay, “The United States as Regime and the Sources of the American Political Way of Life.” Cropsey provides some answers for us by placing America at the foremost edge of the project of modernity—as “the arena in which modernity is working itself out,” and in light of modernity’s own uncertainty about its project. He was pondering at a philosophical plane, noting how the tension of modernity’s two tendencies affects America:

[O]ne inspiriting, reminding man of his earthbound solitude and presenting the world as an opportunity for greatness of some description, the other pointing toward survival, security, and freedom to cultivate the private and privately felt predilections. At its worst, the latter shows itself as acquisitive self-indulgence….

Further on, Cropsey nods in the direction of computational technology, as he elaborates about this self-indulgence as applied to modern science: “At the fountain of scientific modernity, as at the sources of moral modernity, there is discernible the direction of inspiriting and indulging that generates the energy that has moved through modernity ever since.”

He was not writing directly about Google and smartphone technology, of course, and yet it is remarkable that he wasn’t, given how well his words apply to our current befuddlement at what it means to live life so uninhibited with both tools in our palm. The indulgent beliefs that both technologies enable about conquering nature and its limitations have direct consequences for how individuals experience the tension between their freedom and security, as evidenced by everything ranging from the “surveillance state” government down to surveillance retail by Big Coffee. And importantly for this discussion, such beliefs in tandem with technology affect how we think about thinking itself, and thus about education—its purposes and design—and about educators. What is the past for when you no longer have to consciously record it, recall it, or think about it, in order to access parts of it?

To leap from Cropsey’s philosophical exposition of our anxious national pastime to our more practical conundrum about what Google means for historical learning, whether inside or outside the classroom, does injustice to the deft coiling of his complex argument. But Cropsey’s core exposition, it seems to me, is a necessary preface to these questions as provoked by technology and our national character, and as formulated by Wineburg and similar others, if we want truly to answer whether the study of history matters any longer; if it does, whether it is a contradiction to argue that Americans’ century-long record of dismal historical knowledge is beside the point; and crucially, if historical knowledge matters, what we ought to be doing to break the cycle of rigged testing and handwringing.