Friday, November 2, 2012

We'll Always Need Advanced Genealogy Education

Stanford historian Sam Wineburg, interviewed by Randall Stephens over at The Historical Society blog, explains another reason why good classes in evidence evaluation, analysis, and correlation are unlikely ever to become unnecessary. Even today, even the best students are not learning this stuff.

Wineburg describes how he uses a popular book that many history students (but few professional historians) love, the late Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States 1492-Present.

Please note (as some of the commenters on the original post do not) that the issue here is not whether Zinn's claims are true/false/absurd/other, nor whether his book on balance has value, but how to think about any historical claims. If you know the book you probably have an opinion on those questions too; please share it elsewhere.

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. . . . Students know how to find information but many are ill-equipped to answer whether that information should be believed in the first place.

Sound familiar? From our point of view, the roots of genealogical malpractice run deep.

Randall Stephens, "Teaching History to Undergrads: An Interview with Sam Wineburg,"The Historical Society, posted 29 October 2012 ( : accessed 30 October 2012).

Howard Zinn, A People's History of the United States 1492-Present (New York: HarperCollins, 1980-2003).

Harold Henderson, "We'll Always Need Advanced Genealogy Education," Midwestern Microhistory: A Genealogy Blog, posted 2 November 2012 ( : accessed [access date]). [Please feel free to link to the specific post if you prefer.]


Margie said...

Thanks, Harold! Too bad more of our classes beginning in elementary school did not teach us to be critical thinkers rather than regurgitate the information being fed us.

Harold said...

You're welcome, Margie! I do frequently lament the past, but the good news is that we can do better now and provide "remedial critical thinking" as needed!

Brayer said...

AS a high school history teacher of AP US History, I beg to differ. Yes, there is a mc exam for which they need to know facts, but we spend many hours analyzing documents. It is imperative for the student know the history of the era to better interpret a document. Analysis and interpretation are the goals

Harold said...

Glad to hear it, Brayer. We need more of you!