HM - March 2019 - Book Review

What Have You Been Reading?


Book Review: Sam Wineburg's Why Learn History (When It's Already on Your Phone)

by Lindsey Fisher

As a World History teacher and lover of primary source documents, anything Sam Wineburg writes is always at the top of my list, and I found myself pre-ordering Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)* in February 2018.  The book proved to be a worthwhile investment.  Wineburg not only uses a title akin to clickbait, but he also writes in an engaging, dynamic way that helps the reader wade through significant research and data points to arrive at the important conclusion that studying history through a critical lens can help students become more aware of dangerous systems, falsehoods, and ideologies alive in the world around them.  Wineburg does not claim, however, that the study of history will eliminate or even reduce ignorance; rather, he points out myriad examples of well-meaning teachers and students whose study of history left students without the tools necessary to assess the validity of digital information. 
Wineburg describes the current methods of assessing historical knowledge as a “knowledge economy”—essentially, turning history into a game of Trivial Pursuit in which the memorization of factoids produces the greatest return.  From this perspective, the title of the book is obvious: Why teach something we can just Google?  As a scholar of history education, he is aware that there is more to teaching history in 2018 than just the memorization of facts, and so he goes down the line, examining a variety of large scale pedagogical initiatives in place in history classrooms.  Wineburg critiques these initiatives designed to help students more critically discern validity and bias in information, ranging from the Teaching American History grants popular in the early 2000s to his own Reading Like a Historian curriculum to the Common Core.  While some of these critiques hit close to home, Wineburg’s central point is that a critical study of history, which uses a variety of sources and deep analysis of meaning, can help students become better assessors of digital knowledge and thus slow the cycle of false information. This was an important reminder to me to resist the traditional march of the standards-based knowledge economy and to teach students how to do history, to interpret sources, to understand where historical understanding comes from and how it is created.  As Wineburg puts it, “By failing to teach students how the game of history is played in the digital age, we prepare them to face yesterday’s challenges, but leave them naked in the face of those awaiting them tomorrow” (178).  While the book will not leave you feeling warm and fuzzy inside, teachers who read Wineburg’s book will have a better path towards helping students face today’s challenges.

*Wineburg, S. (2018). Why learn history (when it’s already on your phone). Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.

Lindsey Fisher teaches world history in Fairfax County, Virginia

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education provides professional and intellectual leadership to foster an engaged community committed to the teaching, learning, and appreciation of diverse histories.