July 24, 2008, 01:33 PM ET
The Fate of History in a High-Tech Time
When the results of history tests and surveys emerge and students perform abysmally, educators often respond by blaming the tests for overemphasizing facts and memorization. Testers would do better, they maintain, by appreciating more complex historical realities and higher-order reflections upon them. As Howard Gardner once put it in an article in Daedelus in 2002: “More often than not, history consists of lists and names and dates rather than the more challenging but more generative capacity to ‘do history’ and to ‘think historically.’”
Traditionalists and “core knowledge” educators counter that without a sound acquaintance with selected facts, more advanced critical thinking on the past has nothing to work with.
It’s a complicated debate, and it will continue as long as funding is tied to the performance of a school’s students on standardized tests. It will also go on as long as the selection of materials for the curriculum carries with it an ideological charge.
In one aspect, though, many of the parties might agree, both those that regret the decline of history into regurgitation of names and dates and figures, and those that want students to internalize core knowledge. It bears upon technology, specifically, the way in which technology as used by students actually conspires against both higher-order historical thinking and memorization of details.
A while back, a principal at an elementary school explained to me how it happens. He said that his 5th- and 6th-grade teachers are having a problem with research assignments. If they ask the kids to do a report on, say, the colony of Jamestown, they follow a predictable process. Type search terms, pull up the first three or four sites, cut and paste sentences and paragraphs into a document, add their own comments, print it up, and turn it in. They have, they believe, completed the assignment.
The digital tools encourage students to approach their work in this assemblage-like way. They save time and energy, but the process has a sweeping effect. It reduces historical material into information to be retrieved and passed along. And the process doesn’t lodge the material in the minds of the students for very long. It happens too fast, too expeditiously.
We see a paradox at work. More availability of historical material makes less knowledge of it. Ease of access lightens the burden of remembrance. If you can call up the Gettysburg Address any time, why memorize it? If a teacher asks for a paper on women’s suffrage, just put it together out of what you can find online, right? The developmental side of these assignments disappears. The finished product is all, and the mind carries on unchanged.
Young people get the message. The ready-at-hand nature of history, created by the Internet, means that they don’t really have to take in the meaning of the past, to assimilate it within themselves. With history out there on the screen, the important thing is to know how to get it and show it, not how to know it and keep it.
Ideally, however, among other things, historical materials should be part of the raw material of a young person’s character, values, beliefs. The Gettysburg Address isn’t just a bunch of words to be retrieved when the moment calls for it. FDR isn’t just a name and a face and some dates. But the Internet makes them appear so to teenage minds. The kids don’t go to sites such as History News Network or The Smithsonian to explore. They go where they can get the stuff they need quickly and in usable form. History is just information, and it takes a lot less effort to get it through the Web than in the book stacks or microfiche readers. Less effort, though, means less learning. Sometimes the easy way out leaves you empty.