Teaching how to verify facts benefits citizenship

Education Professor Sam Wineburg in 2015 told a conference of historians about his concerns regarding the veracity of information encountered on the internet, noting especially the need to train young users how to test what they encounter. The internet, he warned, has “obliterated authority.”1

“Back in the analog Stone Age we could rely on fact-checked newspapers to stay well-informed,” he said. “Watching the news at night, we could rely on the major outlets and their anchors to save us from error.”

The problem of verifying information is not exclusive to the digital environment. However, the internet compounds the problem and, due to its speed and ubiquity, allows inaccurate and false information to spread far and wide. I am concerned that Wineburg puts too much trust in the analog past compared to the digital now. The notion that professionals and experts once held the key to verified information is an imperfect one, because even they could let their own biases influence what they passed on to audiences. Worse yet, in some cases they could be influenced by their sources. Take the example of Walter Duranty, Moscow bureau chief for The New York Times from 1922-1936. Duranty won the Pulitzer Prize in 1932 for his reporting about the Soviet Union, but his work has been discredited because he failed to question the propaganda fed to him, a fact since noted even by the newspaper.

Although he didn’t use the term, Wineburg suggested that teaching information literacy is important to developing an informed citizenry. In earlier work2, Wineburg had called for using history to teach historical thinking, but in the 2015 presentation he noted that in terms of an educational curriculum, it’s really about preparing citizens.

Despite its problems, the digital environment also can be used to help students and the general public better contend with information. This is useful not only for considering current events, but also in encountering the past.

As digital archives grow, we have easier access to original documents from a variety of sources. Allowing an audience to engage with historical evidence and to analyze it using appropriate tools is one way to develop a more accurate understanding of the past and, more importantly, to transfer this skill and knowledge to the present.

Wineburg suggested equipping students with just two tools to gauge the trustworthiness of internet sites: using whois searches to determine the owner and checking who links to a site. In the same way, we can teach students and the public to interrogate historical documents. For example, in a project I am developing for a media history course, I want to students to read the text of a speech given in 1860 by I.N. Van Slyke to a group of western Wisconsin journalists. A complete examination of the document would require a good investment of time, but for starters students could use digital tools to answer two historical questions: who was Van Slyke and were his accusations about the quality of journalism justified? A number of digitized sources (books, newspaper, census records) exist that would reveal some details of Van Slyke’s life and his role in the region. Searching of digital newspapers might also show whether the speech had any impact in the region and how editors reacted to his strong criticism of mid-19th century journalism. As they read newspapers of the era, students might discover that Van Slyke’s tough words were on target, which could get them to think about how the concept of objectivity in journalism had not yet developed.

The point here is that the digital environment allows the teacher to provide guidance as students explore a historical topic on their own. Along the way, they acquire skills that can be transferred to other situations requiring them to evaluate the source and authority of evidence. If they don’t have anyone telling them to trust information, it is up to them to vet it. Ultimately, that’s so much better.

1. Sam Wineburg, “Why Historical Thinking Is Not about History,” History News 71:2 (Spring 2016), pp. 13-16.

2. See, for example, Sam Wineburg, “Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts,” The Phi Delta Kappan 80:7 (March 1999), pp. 488-499.