“Wow, you studied history?” I braced myself for what he (it’s usually a he) was going to say next. “So you know when General Patton’s birthday is?”
“Uh, I don’t,” I replied.
“What about the name of Robert E. Lee’s horse?”
I actually did know that. “Traveller, but I don’t really study...”
“How many people died in the Battle of Gettysburg?”
You get the idea: a lot of people fancy themselves history buffs. They obsess over names, dates, battles, and numbers, and they love spouting them off at top speed. (And after consuming one too many History Channel specials, anyone would think the American Civil War was the most important event in human history.) I can’t blame my interlocutor too much. This way of “learning” history—absorbing and being tested on discrete, disconnected facts from a textbook—is what we’re taught in school. If you memorize enough facts, you’re an expert.
This is what Sam Wineburg calls “history as Trivial Pursuit”—accumulated minutiae passed off as true knowledge. Wineburg’s new book, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), explores the way we teach history to students and the dismal consequences for political and social life in the internet era. Wineburg argues that without learning in school how to evaluate evidence, consider implications, and craft a narrative based on research and debate, we are susceptible to falsehoods, especially now that “fake news” thrives online. And if we can’t sort fact from fiction, we fall prey to whatever narrative is the most popular or the most comfortable—and lose our critical faculties as democratic citizens.
Wineburg begins with a familiar question: When anyone with an internet connection can post rants on social media, build a website, manipulate images, and distribute a podcast, how do we know what to believe? Compared with the time when “libraries and archives represented quiet stability” and researching meant poring over card catalogs and scouring indexes, the internet has both overloaded us with information and “obliterated authority.” Wineburg writes, “In our Google-drenched society, the most critical question we face is not how to find information. Our browser does a great job. We’re bombarded by stuff…. Digital snake oil salesmen compete with reliable sources for our allegiance. Can we tell the difference?” The answer—for students as well as adults—is no.