Widgets Magazine


Undoing certainty, injecting hope into history education: An open letter to Stanford professor Sam Wineburg

Professor Wineburg,

Last month, Stanford reported your team’s findings that teens are shooting up fake news.

Is anyone surprised?

Even the Pakistani Defense Minister has the bug: Was it last month that he threatened Israel with nuclear retaliation based on fake reports?

Professor Wineburg, your work on historical literacy, and your new focus on online reasoning, is vital for America’s critical consciousness. As it stands, your method is popular: You’ve reported 3.5 million downloads of the Stanford History Education Group‘s curriculum, Reading Like a Historian (RLH). In it, teachers access nuanced lessons, using primary sources, to get students debating issues like “was Lincoln a racist?” Students corroborate evidence, navigate shifty voices, critique movies — they search for the missing, the doctored. As a student teacher training at Stanford, it was a revelation.

This is my concern: The RLH curriculum is an unreliable source that perpetuates the problem you seek to solve.

When taken in sequence, RLH’s U.S. history lessons transform into a nationalist narrative. Military and political events heavily valued. Six lessons on the Cold War, two lessons about African American civil rights, one of which deemphasizes black people by centering on “was JFK a strong supporter of civil rights?” Women’s history begins with suffrage, quickly followed by the inquiry “why did people, including women, oppose suffrage?” No rethinking of dominant narratives into cultural, transnational, micro or environmental histories.

The surety of the RLH narrative seems to suggest that historians have settled on whether history is a science or a humanity. It seems to suggest that Said’s “Orientalism” is finished laying bare the insidious biases trickling into scholarship due to ethnocentric privilege. As James Baldwin once said: “If you don’t know my father, how can you know the people in the streets of Tehran?” In this case: If you don’t define yourself, how can you define history?

I am concerned about the ways you’ve responded to history educators whose narratives differ from yours.

I will never forget the day you told me you were going to write an essay about how Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States,” that bastion of social justice, was as propagandistic as textbooks. We drank beer; you suggested my classmates’ thinking was fascist; my classmates wanted to omit documents supporting Truman’s use of the atomic bomb from curricula on ethical grounds. I was excited that socialist feminists like me could get behind a challenge to the status-quo dogma of classroom teaching.

Then the article came out. Something in me turned cold. You burn bridges to Zinn folks. Your headings eviscerate: “A History with No Hands.” You attack the man’s character: “Not only is Zinn certain about the history that’s happened. He’s certain about the history that didn’t.” You write, “A history of unalloyed certainties is dangerous because it invites a slide into intellectual fascism,” without reflecting on your own unalloyed certainties inviting similar danger.

More recently, you went on NPR to decry Big History, stating “the kinds of questions of the Big Bang … seem to be quite far and distant from … the need to understand our present.” That is conservative judgement; is it necessary to gate-keep the definition of history as well as the tools to teach historical thinking? By reflexively taking these groups down, you have been defending your website’s patriarchy.

Professor Wineburg, please use your privilege to listen, build bridges, hybridize, allow for changes to history’s definition and engage in critical inquiry. Imagine “Big History” and “A People’s History” sections on the RLH website. Imagine a review of your site by historians of color, feminists, environmental historians. Imagine the RLH website openly asking students to question the veracity of its narrative, openly asking students to challenge its creator’s methods.

To fight the oncoming ghouls of tyranny, our students have to do more than fact-check: They have to self-actualize. Students must learn to challenge authority, constructively and actively, including Big History, RLH, our presidents, our textbooks, our Twitter feeds, our teachers, our parents and the unconsidered mythology of the individual soul.

If history educators embraced an outbreak of critical inquiry on all sides, maybe our students could have a chance at learning to be citizens.

With hope,

Rei Jackler M.A. ’12, Teaching of Social Science