Sam Wineburg wrote last Semptember, that “What once fell on the shoulders of editors, fact-checker, and subject experts now falls on the shoulders of each and every one of us.” Increasingly, I think the general public is beginning to feel exhausted and overwhelmed, constantly having to question the truthfulness of everything we see. As history educators, I think we need to arm our students with the ability to determine a source’s validity without really thinking about it.
I am thinking back to “threshold concepts.” The ability to evaluate information is a skill that takes practice, but can become almost second nature. Although the internet has made this issue more complex, I think we can find solutions there as well.
In my classes, I’ve often thought of “the public” as an amorphous blob of faceless people. So, when thinking about how historians can help “the public” understand the past more accurately, this seemed like an impossible task. Then I realized that I interact with “the public” everyday in the persons of my family, friends, and neighbors. My most frequent interaction with non-professionals in Facebook. I think Social Media is one of the strongest tools at our disposal to promote historical thinking.
I am remembering one occasion in particular. A friend had posted her research about Petroglyphs in Georgia, and someone commented, “What’s a petroglyph?” To which she responded, “I can’t help you if you don’t educate yourself.” I was appalled. What on earth did she think her friend was trying to do by asking her?! I’ve seen this response from archaeologists, historians, political scientists, and many other professional friends. In situations like that, I see it as a golden opportunity to educate the elusive public. We might share a link, and briefly explain why it is trustworthy (A. Guy, a professor at Awesome U and at the top of the field explains it really well here: www.address.com).
If research shows that people put their trust in news and history they hear from their friends on social media, then bring that accurate history to where they are! No need to wait for undergraduates to file into class or a family to wander into our museums, we can encourage historical thinking with our social media friends, their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. Wineburg claims that, “If our curriculum has any pretense for career preparation, it is for the vocation of citizen.” Agreed. But let’s teach by example.
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