Controversy in the Modern Classroom: Sam Wineburg’s Why Learn History

by Bryan & Heather

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

History in schools and in general has been under attack recently as one side of the political spectrum prioritizes their own feelings about what should or should not be considered part of our shared past. Informational literacy in general has proven to be astonishingly low throughout the past decade, culminating in the election of Donald Trump in 2016 and the denial of the results of the 2020 presidential election. Much ink has been spilt over the role of social media and other internet mainstays in bringing about this outcome, but what if the problem lies deeper? What if the way students learn history and engage with the digital age on a basic level has been flawed? These are the questions Sam Wineburg asks in Why Learn History, and Heather and I were intrigued to hear his take both as concerned historians and concerned citizens.

Wineburg organizes his work into a collection of essays, each on a separate topic related to how history is taught in the modern secondary school classroom. Any connective material is thin and supplied only in the introduction and epilogue, and thus Why Learn History reads more like two different books. One, comprised of the introduction, seventh chapter, and epilogue, discusses the lack of basic Internet literacy at all levels of our society; the other, comprised of the other seven chapters, deals with deficiencies in history instruction and assessment going back as far as the turn of the twentieth century. The former is a fairly unsurprising, though necessary, commentary on our post-2016 world in particular. As it turns out, being raised on screens (not to mention spending the majority of one’s free time on one) does not in fact impart the skills necessary to parse fact from fiction on the Internet, and along with all the other ways modern society is egregiously lagging behind on adapting to the realities of the digital age, students need to be taught how to navigate the simultaneous boon-and-bane of our times that is the Internet.

Despite his title and framing, however, Wineburg’s greatest focus by far is not “why learn” but “how to teach” history, and here his ideas more often stumble than land. This suite of essays begins with a history of history assessment that is indeed troubling; reliance on private companies to craft multiple choice tests that are more interested in creating perfect bell curves than actually assessing knowledge has resulted in a perennial lament that students do not know their history. Yet, in a worrying trend we observed throughout his essays, Wineburg seems to take the wrong lesson from this phenomenon, namely, that multiple choice assessment is inherently bad, even going so far as to mock specific questions that are actually fairly well designed to test essential knowledge of American history.

This disdain for traditional history assessment, not to mention the persistent rhetoric of conservative lawmakers that history classes should essentially foster a patriotic litany of great (white) Americans, leads Wineburg to advance his most problematic assertion: that history class should not be about teaching historical knowledge at all. Instead, students should be taught to think historically–a process that Wineburg argues is more useful in the long term, leads to higher and more enthusiastic engagement, fosters better recall, and most crucially (according to Wineburg) does not require historical knowledge to master. It’s hard to argue with Wineburg’s case as presented; it is technically correct that no process requires data to learn in and of itself, and the results of his and his grad students’ experimental methods in San Francisco Public Schools and elsewhere persuasively demonstrate that even middle schoolers can respond to fairly advanced historical methodology when taught with a deft hand. Upon reflection, however, Wineburg becomes increasingly less convincing. While he admirable recognizes the constraints of time and reading ability more than other books of the same genre (looking at you, James Loewen), Wineburg never admits that these methods are simply not feasible in the majority of school districts across the country, where most students are reading below their grade level. The fact also remains that there is certain historical knowledge that students should be expected to absorb before they graduate high school if we expect them to be responsible citizens in our republic (a story of teenagers thinking Amazon created the New York Stock Exchange to make more money comes to mind as a cautionary tale). While we could come up with an (admittedly utopian) educational reform reconciling these two realities of historical knowledge and historical thinking, it is disappointing that Wineburg never does, ultimately ignoring the importance of retaining knowledge in general.

A larger problem with Why Learn History arises nearly every time Wineburg uses a study to advance his argument, whether conducted by himself, his peers, or simply cited in the line of research. It’s very possible that these studies were summarized or abridged for the sake of retaining a general audience’s attention and understanding, but very few of them passed the smell test for us. Whether testing insufficient sample sizes, providing unclear directions, or operating on faulty assumptions, it almost felt like much of Wineburg’s evidence was attempting to test his readers on the very critical thinking he was supposedly advocating. One instance is instructive: a group of “cream of the crop” AP United States History Students are asked to analyze a document historically. Wineburg’s example student (recipient of a “respectable” 4 on the exam) fails to ask any of the questions the AP curriculum would demand he ask of the document in his response (it’s a miracle he got as high as a 4); teachers across the nation ask inane and only loosely-historica questions to prompt further reflection when showed his response; and then Wineburg asks why this high school student couldn’t have approached the document like a seminar of UC Berkeley grad students did (of whom Wineburg makes the ridiculous assertion that they knew no more about the period than the high schooler did). After each of these occurrences, we couldn’t help but wonder whether Wineburg’s evidence was ever truly representative, or if he was building his essays based on strawman arguments–students, teachers, and schools who were outside of good curricula already in place.

In the final accounting, Why Learn History is more valuable as a mental exercise than as an instructive work, but that does not mean it is without merit. Wineburg’s chapter on the deficiencies of teaching Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States is a masterclass in responsible historical methodology, and the work’s ideas in general have been highly influential in how we conceive of the proper purpose and course of history education in secondary school classrooms in the United States. We only wish we could have formed our opinions in agreement with Wineburg’s essays rather than in opposition to so many of them.

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