by Rebecca Koerselman
Historians spend most of their time with sources. We read them, search for them, evaluate them, re-evaluate them, discount them, occasionally ignore them, but mostly wrestle with them. Thomas S. Kidd, when researching his biography of the Great Awakening preaching icon, George Whitefield, struggled with the sources he found. While Whitefield had many admirable qualities and Kidd affirms Whitefield as the US’s “spiritual founding father,” Whitefield also owned slaves. Kidd grappled with how to deal with this evidence about Whitefield. Yes, Whitefield cared for the souls of slaves, yet he also advocated for slave labor in Georgia and owned slaves. How does one deal with this sort of ugly historical evidence? Certainly, Kidd could have ignored this evidence and left it out of his biography of Whitefield. On the other hand, I appreciated Kidd’s willingness to struggle with the evidence and show a flawed person in US history. After all, a mix of admirable and objectionable qualities is evident in most of us.
While good historians are forced to reckon with sources, apparently a good portion of the American public has no such inclination. The rash of ‘fake news’ stories is troubling to most of us, and particularly to myself as a historian and educator. I work with students on a daily basis to help hone the skills of analysis and evaluation when it comes to sources from the past and the present. Apparently I have a great deal more work to do in this area. Research demonstrates that students struggle to evaluate sources. Researchers at Stanford Graduate School of Education spent more than a year evaluating how students discern information found online. The results are sobering: most middle school students cannot tell the difference between news articles and advertising. Most high school students accepted photographs as factual illustrations without verifying their authenticity. Most college students could not distinguish a bias in a tweet from an activist group. Additionally, most Stanford students did not differentiate between a mainstream and fringe source.
To complicate matters further, most schools have filters that direct student users to more valid sources, which means students are not able to do so on their own. So should we be surprised when adults are not able to determine fake news from real news?
A man shot a rifle in a Washington D.C. pizzeria as a personal investigative response to a fake news story about a child prostitution ring, supposedly connected with Hillary Clinton. Thankfully, no one was injured. But what will it take for people to thoughtfully evaluate information?
[do_widget id=adwidget_htmlwidget-3] The solution? In the words of Sam Wineburg, a professor of education and history at Stanford, “the response is not to take away these rights from ordinary citizens but to teach them how to thoughtfully engage in information seeking and evaluating in a cacophonous democracy.” While taking regular history classes is not a viable option for most of us, we can certainly model this type of evaluative and thoughtful behavior. Wisdom is not gained overnight but takes time and practice. How can we model this in our own lives? Do we demonstrate this thoughtfulness when making declarative statements about a person or group of people? Do we chew people out before taking the time to hear all sides of the story? Do we quickly condemn someone or something we don’t like or make sure to give a nuanced view, while admitting we may not have enough information to make a judgment? Do we accept what we’ve been taught or told without questioning motives or accuracy? Do we see the value of asking questions of the Bible or our faith? Are we willing to wrestle with the hard teachings of scripture? Or is questioning and evaluating treated as unfaithfulness?
While I would love to say the solution is more history teachers and more history classes for all Americans, the reality is that most of us can and should model this sort of thoughtful behavior outside the classroom. To be salt and light takes wisdom and discernment.
And a thoughtful evaluation of sources.[do_widget id=adwidget_htmlwidget-2]