Professional historians are innately aware that the truth of history is in the eyes of the beholder. History can be told from multiple perspectives and with as many interpretations as there are people. The advent of the digital world has created an environment in which the past is ever more malleable. Although unsettling to standardized history curriculum advocates, this malleability is a great strength of the discipline which educators can utilize to teach and encourage deeper engagement.
The internet, especially social media, has raised awareness among the general public that there are several versions of the past, perhaps even to the point of being taken for granted. Although in 1994 Peter Seixas demonstrated that students take modern interpretations of history at face value, and only question their assumptions when faced with conflicting narratives, I wonder how true those observations are today in an age when “alternative facts” and “revisionist history” are Facebook hashtags. Already students enter the class room at least aware that narratives of the past exist other than their own. As educators, we can directly address the “jagged edges” (to borrow Sam Wineburg’s term) of history that our students encounter on the web and brush aside.
The malleable past also encourages empathetic and personal readings of the past. Interactive online exhibits, for example, facilitate placing ones self in the past. The questions, “Why should I care? What has this to do with me?” can be more easily answered. As educators, we can direct our students to more complex understandings of histories (purposely plural- the many memories and narratives of the past). Students come to class with their own comforting narratives of the past, and as teachers we encourage deeper engagement by directing students to confront the uncomfortable jagged edges where their personal histories conflict with divergent accounts. Struggling with both empirical knowledge and emotional bagged, I think, actively engages students towards thinking historically.
Despite Google’s and our browser’s personalization filters, multiple versions of the past molded for particular purposes find their way on our screens. In 2016, Sam Wineburg asked students if they believed that President Obama was born in Kenya. When they stated they did not, despite an interview with his grandmother claiming she was present, Wineburg took the opportunity to explore a source students already doubted. I don’t think students are shocked when history professors reveal that historians, politicians, activists, and the general public all shape the past for a variety of purposes. I think many students come to history classes to learn the “real story,” because they have doubts about popular stories.
The built-in skepticism allows history teachers to more easily deconstruct narratives of the past than the pre-internet age. The reign of the textbook is over. No longer do students learn about the past from a single authoritative textbook which presents a seemingly self-evident narrative. Rather, students pick up bits of history from Facebook, their browser home page, and YouTube, along with the history taught in school. Good history education, moving forward, will be putting these many histories in conversation with each other with the goal of forming students who actively engage with intellectual conflict, rather than brushing new information aside.
Seixas, Peter. “Confronting the Moral Frames of Popular Film: Young People Respond to Historical Revisionism.” American Journal of Education 2, no. 3. (May 1994): 261-285.