Why I picked it up: Is history a list of facts and dates to be memorized? Of course not. If it were then, sure, we could leave history to our phones and simply look up what we need to know, when we need to know it.
But we all know history is much more complicated than that. It is also being politicized, which increases its capacity to harm if most people don't have the historical literacy to understand how bias works, what facts and truth really are (and how they differ), how to evaluate evidence, and who to trust. I am working on a project that assesses public attitudes around history and how it relates to inclusion and social justice, and this book caught my attention as a plea for historical literacy to increase for society's sake.
What you need to know: The book is largely a criticism of how history is taught and shared in this country. History as taught tends to be focused on facts, and stripped of its "intrinsically human character" … a method that discourages critical thinking about the past AND that leads many students to become disengaged with history as adults (as my research also clearly shows).
The teaching of facts means that students look at history as only facts, black-and-white, not changeable (hence charges of "revisionist history" when we change our interpretation of the past), and that today they don't know how to evaluate the source of information for credibility. We all know what that means in our fake news saturated world.
Wineburg makes two comments that stood out as important as we as a society wrestle with the past and how it affects today:
There was one conclusion that did not sit well with me, however. Chapter 8 suggests that good work has been done in opening a more inclusive past to Americans. Specifically, he shared data that showed that MLK, Rosa Parks, and Harriet Tubman are now considered the most influential Americans (that were not Presidents or First Ladies).
While I agree that those individuals deserve that acclaim (their stories are courageous and inspiring), I also felt that their appearance so high on the list isn't necessarily a deserved pat on the back for history. This outcome does not mean that a truly inclusive history is being taught. That is, by teaching about the things that Harriet Tubman achieved, we skip over the horrors of slavery and its long-term repercussions. By extolling MLK and Rosa Parks, we can push to the side where the Civil Rights Act has failed. We can teach, then, "feel-good" history.
Or, as one of the qualitative panelists from my Inclusive History in America research noted, "I feel like the Civil Rights movement is taught about because it is the more convenient narrative of history to be taught. It is a way to teach about slavery and racism with the least amount of white guilt as possible."
We can't just teach the inspiring stories and what seems like happy endings, and then check off the inclusive work as "done." Inclusive history needs to become mainstream history. That hasn't happened. So while Wineberg doesn't say straight out that work for inclusion is successful/done, neither does he make the case that we haven't done enough … and why this matters.
Implications for museums: As the most trusted source for history, how we deal with history in this age of alternative facts really matters. My research shows how aware many of those on the left are that the traditional historical narrative deliberately leaves out whole swathes of the population … while those on the right see that traditional narrative as one that supports values and ideals that are important to them. How do museums deal with this tension? How do museums convey that history is messy, interesting, nuanced, ambiguous, inspiring, and challenging, and thus our understanding of history is ever-changing? It's hard. The past as taught teaches certainty, and when we share a more inclusive history, that certainty is erased, making many feel like the rug has been pulled out from under them (or worse). As that most trusted source of history, we need to figure out how to deal with this … and use it as an opportunity to truly share evidence-backed knowledge that works to open minds to other perspectives, understanding, tolerance, and the complexities of our past, present, and future.
Bonus: Quotes Stacia Kuceyeski of the Ohio History Connection on page 49!
Read or skip? A maybe. I think about history a lot, and I found this a highly thought-provoking read not only of how we teach history, but also extrapolating it to today's civil and historical discourse (or lack thereof). But while I think Wineberg is (mostly) right about his criticisms, I also thought the book would have been stronger if it included a more nuanced understanding of how most American adults actually approach history … and why this matters if we are going to raise new generations of historically literate and tolerant Americans. Bottom line, if my review piques your interest, go for it. It's a good read.
Full citation: Wineburg, Sam. Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone). Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2018
Wilkening Consulting research quote: the Inclusive History in America research will be released late summer 2019; a full citation will be provided at that time.
Have a suggestion for my reading list? Email it to me at susie (at) wilkeningconsulting (dot) com.
I respectfully acknowledge that I live and work on the traditional lands of the Duwamish people. I thank them for the care of this land, and I endeavor to help museums bring forward a more complete and inclusive history and culture in their work.