Monday, October 29, 2012

Teaching History to Undergrads: An Interview with Sam Wineburg

Randall Stephens

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the School of Education at Stanford University and director of the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written and taught widely on historical consciousness, questions of identity and history in recent America, and the uses of the past.  He's the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001); Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School Classrooms (TC Press, 2011), with Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano; and editor of Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (NYU Press, 2000) with Peter N. Stearns and Peter Seixas. (In 2006 Joe Lucas interviewed Wineburg in Historically Speaking.)  

Below I ask Wineburg about one of his courses and the challenges of history education.

Randall Stephens: What made you decide to teach a course on "Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States & the Quest for Historical Truth"?

Sam Wineburg: When I moved to Stanford from the University of Washington in 2002, I began to encounter very bright students in our Masters of Teaching program who were highly critical of their high school history books, but who reserved a sacred place for Zinn's A People's History. It had been years since I read the book, so I went to the bookstore, purchased the latest edition and started to read. The first thing that popped out at me was that despite the fact that the book had been in print for over two decades no new scholarship had been incorporated in Zinn's narrative. Chapters on the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and everything prior to 1980 were frozen in amber. It was as if, once you came to your historical conclusions, you never had to rethink your position in light of new scholarship—such as the opening up of the Soviet archives and the light these documents shed on spies in America, or the tell-all exposes of the Emperor Hirohito's inner coterie and how these memoirs changed our ideas about how close (actually, how distant) the Japanese were to surrender before Hiroshima. The more I started to dig the more I started to realize how useful A People's History would be pedagogically, particularly for students who conceptualize the past in stark binaries of true and false. 

Stephens: Why have historians had such varying views of Zinn's bestselling work?

Wineburg: I think most historians agree that the book is pretty weak as a piece of historical scholarship. The most favorable review of the book was by Eric Foner, who when he published his review in 1980, was fairly close to Zinn politically. But even Foner's review spelled out serious reservations. Since then, Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent and a historian with impeccable leftist credentials, gave A People's History a good thrashing in a review published in 2004. It seems to me that the most ardent fans of the book come not from the community of professional historians, but from the ranks of high school teachers, Hollywood personalities, and Amazon.com reviewers.


Stephens: How do you try to get students to think about the debates of history or the contested nature of history?

Wineburg: I do what Louis Gottschalk did in developing the History Workshop back in the 1930s at Chicago. I have students take a claim and then follow the chain of evidence for it back to its source. This is not easy with Zinn, as the book contains no footnotes. So, we have to figure out where Zinn gets his information by looking at his bibliography (there is no archival research in the book—all of Zinn's references are to secondary sources). So, I have students go back to the books Zinn read, and then have them go to the notes in these books to try to figure out how Zinn has used this information and whether its original context has been preserved. This course is part of Stanford's freshmen seminar program, so my students are young people who only months before had been in high school. They have never experienced anything like this before. Nearly all of them are survivors of AP history, where history class meant memorizing copious amounts of factual information to do well on the 80 multiple choices items so they could get into a college like Stanford. They know a great deal of historical information but have little sense of what history is as a discipline, as a unique way of knowing. And too often our broad survey courses assume that undergraduates already have this foundation in place, when what students actually know how to do is score well on standardized tests.

Stephens: To what extent are high school teachers in the US getting students to engage in historical thinking?

Wineburg: I am loathe to generalize to all history teachers. At the same time, all we have to do is to look at a decade of No Child Left Behind, a failed policy inherited by the Obama administration and given new life by it. With a relentless focus on high-stakes testing there is little time to engage students in the kind of focused analyses that truly develops the critical capacity for thought. I sometimes see high school classrooms that do this when I consult with independent schools. But the reality that most public school teachers deal with is quite different. Becker's notion of "every man his own historian" has never been more pertinent than in the age of Google. Students know how to find information but many are ill-equipped to answer whether that information should be believed in the first place. In that sense, teaching students how to think historically has never been more essential to the vitality and ongoing health of the republic. If you don't believe me, just tune into Glen Beck the next time he hosts David Barton.

11 comments:

dan allosso said...

Interesting interview! I happily read Wineburg during both my MA and PhD History Intro seminars, and I agree with much of what he says here. But I also think we need to ask ourselves why Zinn is so popular with the people who don't have a seat at our exalted table, those Wineburg dismisses as high school teachers, Hollywood personalities, and Amazon.com reviewers.

As an ABD PhD student and a farmer, I may be much closer to the beginning of my historical journey, and I may be less averse to screwing up a potential career by telling the truth. So I will admit, Zinn's book does occupy a special place on my shelf. Not because I believe it uncritically. But because it was one of the first things I ever read that challenged the master narrative. The fact that it's light on references is a function of its market and its time (compare it with, say, Oscar Handlin's The Uprooted), but it DID mention a lot of subjects and events I had never heard of in the history I was taught in American public schools. As with all the old books I read, I made lists of these and went off and found out more about them myself. This led to an MA, and the PhD program I'm doing now.

Maybe part of the attraction of A People's History is that it calls names and reduces history to binaries. That's a bad thing, if the alternative is a more constructive and nuanced view of the past. But it's a good thing, if the alternative is the type of American history so many of us were taught. By throwing cold water on that history, Zinn helped open the door for people like...Wineburg.

Steven Cromack said...

What a great interview. I love Wineburg's writings, especially Historically Thinking, and was fascinated by his approach to Zinn.

Dan, I thought your point about Zinn having a "special place" on your shelf because it challenges "the master narrative" was particular salient.

I remember in Honors US where my high school history teacher had us read Chapter 1 on Columbus. In the words of Matt Damon from Good Will Hunting, "that book will knock your socks off." While I detest Zinn and populist history, I think he does a great job of making students realize that history is not black and white (no pun intended).

Randall said...

"Ye without Zinn, cast the first Oliver Stone."

I think it is overall a good think that Zinn has made so many individuals, in the states and abroad, excited about history. (People's History is a big seller here in Norway.) But what gets me is his sharp binary--good guys vs bad guys history. In this case it's history as object lesson and it's easy enough to spot the villains.

Anonymous said...

I enjoy a good dismissal of Zinn, but if its status is so low in the academy, why is it assigned as a regular textbook?

Why are the comments so far so positive?

Besides, it doesn't challenge a master narrative anymore. Zinn's vision is the master narrative.

Anonymous said...

Exactly what Anonymous said above. I'm tired of the "Yes it's bad history, but BOY WHAT A GREAT BOOK!" interpretations of Zinn.

Throw it in the trash, if it's truly bad. And STOP ASSIGNING IT if it's supposedly such a problematic book among the professorate (I suspect that it's not as problematic for academic historians as pseudo-Zinn apologists seem to want us to believe).

hcr said...

I'm not a fan of Zinn's work, but it seems to me that Wineburg's approach to Zinn would be useful for undergraduates, whether you like his approach or not. Getting them to chase down the sources for an unsourced text and then to see if the narrative accurately reflects those sources is a great way to show them that just because it's written down doesn't mean it's right.

While I get the frustration that Zinn's version is now the master narrative, I don't think that's true. It might have been twenty years ago, but now there is a new master in town (it seems to me) and s/he's dangerous. It's the whole concept of the Documents Based Question. The idea behind that was good-- that students would use primary sources-- but the upshot of it seems to be that students learn to receive a thesis-- the "prompt"-- and then to support that thesis using primary documents, rather than looking at primary documents and coming up with their own interpretation of them. If you think of the larger societal implications of teaching students to defend whatever they are told using the evidence they can find (on the web), it seems to me a much bigger problem than any temporarily "master" narrative.

Anonymous said...

Cherry-picking primary sources ranks much lower on the scale of major pedagogical problems in the field. Near the top is the single-minded notion that the majority of students come away with from the great majority of classes that use Zinn--that American history is nothing but a laundry list of all the evil things that white male capitalists have done.

Simply put, if you want people to continue believing in the notion of education in the humanities as political indoctrination first, learning second, then keep assigning Zinn.

hcr said...

Hard for us to argue this without some statistics on who actually uses it as a textbook these days. My own impression, though, is that it had its moment of glory and is now seen as a corrective to the old narrative that is, itself, problematic.

I still think the larger question of indoctrination is far worse if you convince people that they are thinking for themselves as they follow a provided conclusion than if you give them a biased book that has plenty of pushback, easily available.

Anonymous said...

Pushback against Zinn may be easily available, but my impression (just as valid as yours) is that most of the Zinn is assigned in a college course, the students get to read very little to no pushback.

dan allosso said...

I think the point HCR has made is more interesting than the question of "to Zinn or not to Zinn." Do students learn to think critically, or do they learn that there are good guys and bad guys? Does it matter whether we say "master narrative" or "dominant paradigm" or "consensus," or are these all open to the same challenge? Seems to me, intention is important. But then we're judging historical work from a presentist perspective: what is it intended to do now? Somehow, though, this doesn't bother me too much...

Steven Cromack said...

If we can speak beyond perceptions for a moment: there is simply NO evidence to indicate that a majority of college history classes assign Zinn. If anyone has evidence, I would LOVE to see it. Furthermore, the idea that teachers do not provide push back to Zinn is not quantifiable.

While I detest Zinn, I plan to assign him. Zinn has a legitimate spot in any US History class because it is one perspective of many. He argues that History is not concrete or set in stone, but instead open to critical interpretation. Wineburg's exercise of students verifying sources is something that could work in the high school classroom. The teacher's responsibility is to then provide other perspectives so that students can practice critical thinking.