Recently read: Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)

Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018).

This summer I read Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone). It altered the way I think about teaching. For one, Wineburg makes the straightforward case that when it comes to information, the students we encounter today know how to find that. It’s everywhere, on the Internet. While it remains true that content matters, it’s equally true that teaching students how to discern the value of content matters, especially when we know that already they’re looking up stuff online and sometimes the first Google search result is not the best source.

If I were to break down this book, I’d go along with how the book is divided into three major parts by the author and his editor(s). ‘Part 1: Our Current Plight’ had three chapters on historiography. In gist, these chapters contain (1) a brilliant critique of standardized testing and how it measures historical knowledge and (2) the dangers of implicit bias and how that can cloud our minds when doing historiography. As an example, he questions the uncritical use of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. (Not because he’s socially conservatives but because he’s not.)

In ‘Part 2: Historical Thinking ≠ An Amazing Memory’ he questions the structure of ‘Bloom’s Taxonomy’ for historical thinking (arguing that historical work actually turns it on its head) and does a case study on George Washington in relation to the so-called ‘Close Reading’ approach to doing history (which may teach students how to philosophically evaluate a text but not necessarily how to read it like a historian).

‘Part 3: Thinking Historically in a Digital Age’ is where the book finds its worth. ‘Chapter 6: Changing History…One Classroom at a Time’ reimagines how we might teach students to think historically in a way that is less textbook dependent and focused more on how to do historical work in a digital age. ‘Chapter 7: Why Google Can’t Save Us’ is where Wineburg shows that Google throws search results at us that tell us anything but whether the website listed is useful and trustworthy. He shows how we can evaluate the source of a website (using and other ways to interrogate a website. I’ll say more about this in future posts

The final section, ‘Part 4: Conclusion: Historical Hope’ includes one chapter ‘”Famous Americans”: The Changing Pantheon of American Heroes’ that shows that the most famous American from history is changing. I don’t want to spoil the moral of the chapter, so I won’t say more than that.

This is a great book for those who teach history in a high school or college setting. It challenges us to think about historical thinking in the digital age and how the Internet has changed our research habits. I highly recommend.


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