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Between 2015 and 2016, Sam Wineburg and his team tested students in twelve states and studied 7,804 responses. The team specifically analyzed online civic reasoning, the students’ ability to judge information that streams across smartphones, tablets, and computers.

Sam Wineburg
Margaret Jacks Professor of Education and Professor, by courtesy, of History

Wineburg and his team studied middle school, high school, and college students and found striking consistency: students are unable to reason about information found on the internet. How utterly bleak.

At the middle school level, 82% of students were unable to differentiate between an ad and a news story. More than 60% were unable to question why a bank executive wrote an article about millennials’ need for fiscal advice. High schoolers did not understand the blue checkmark showing an account to be verified by Facebook, and more than 30% of high schoolers believed a fake news post to be more reliable than a verified news post. High school students viewed a screenshot of a “nuclear flower” supposedly taken near the site of the Fukushima Daiichi disaster and 4 out of 10 of them believed it to be “strong evidence” of environmental damage. This screen shot had no indication that it had been taken near the site, or in Japan.

It keeps going. College students also struggled to distinguish sites that hid their backers. For example, less than 10% of college students were able to distinguish that MinimumWage.com is a front group for a DC lobbyist. MiniumWage.com is a project of the Employment Policies Institute, which styles itself as a nonprofit organization that sponsors nonpartisan research. Very few students went beyond the site itself to do a search for ‘Employment Policies Institute’ and ‘funding,’ which would result in a series of exposes on the site. Wineburg also did a talk at a large state university where he showed the web page for the Hitler Historical Museum, which claimed to be “a non-biased, non-profit museum devoted to the study and preservation of the world history.” He asked the class how many used the Internet for research. Then Wineburg asked if any could show him in one click who owned the site. No one, including the faculty, did.

There’s more. Adults and teachers aren’t off the hook either. Middle school teachers in Rialto, CA created an exam using a set of documents that made “credible” arguments, each representing a different position on a historical controversy. In the category of the Holocaust, a number of students weighed The Diary of Anne Frank as well as an article from an antisemitic Australian website “Is the Holocaust a Hoax?” and found the Diary wanting. Students found the hoax article more credible and the Diary to be fake and made the argument “there was no evidence or prove [sic] that there were gas chambers.” The story became public, the school district required sensitivity training, the presumption being that this exam came from an animus toward Jews. But Sam Wineburg disagreed – he thinks this is a misdiagnosis of the problem. Wineburg wrote, “I believe their sin is that they, too, were overwhelmed by what the Internet spews, and they regrettable put a spurious document on the same footing as legitimate historical evidence.”

We all live in a world flooded in information, but not all information is equal. The internet is crawling with information by pseudo-scholars who invent footnotes and Photoshop images to shore up fraudulent claims. According to Wineburg, “welcome to the chilling future of learning the past, where not just our students but our teachers and textbook authors fall victim to fake history.” What information should be believed?

In an age where no one regulates the information we consume, the task of separating truth from falsehood is a significant one. Wineburg writes, “google can teach many things, but it cannot teach discernment.”

Good history encourages our tolerance for complexity. It makes us accept exceptions to the rule and requires the moral courage we need to revise our ideas when faced with new evidence. Historical thinking ensures that we will not think the same way we thought yesterday and the day before that. In Thomas Jefferson’s day, when pamphlets of dubious quality littered the streets, he understood that the expansion of expression had a cost. Yet, Jefferson never suggested an abridgment of the cherished right to freedom of speech. Jefferson’s solution is as apt today as it was in his day: “if we think [the people] not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education.”

From Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone), Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2018; introduction, chapter 3 and chapter 7.

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

8 Comments

  • Kim Van Es says:

    What an important post. I love the Jefferson quotation at the end. Thank you, Rebecca.

  • Gloria McCanna says:

    Great essay and a challenge for the Church today to dare to listen to those who have the Spirit’s gift of discernment.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca, I find the part of not believing the Holocaust to be a true and very telling incident in our history to be so terrible. We should learn from these
    times of sinful behavior. It is like saying that slavery was not a very strong destructive force in our country.

  • John says:

    I am going to research Rebecca Koerselman to be sure she is the real deal!!!

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    As a college professor in environmental sciences, I can certainly attest to the research you cite. In my experience, students tend to accept all information found on the internet as equal in value. In many cases, they were astounded that I required them to identify their sources by web site (if they used the internet) and that they then needed to make an evaluation regarding the reliability of that web site. I ask them if they would do their research by walking down the street and knocking on arbitrarily selected doors to ask questions. The web is really no different that that.

  • RLG says:

    Thanks, Rebecca, for your article of caution. I’m quite certain that discernment is a missing element in a good share of people’s lives. Of course, there are areas in which individuals have greater discernment than in others. But in other areas discernment is very difficult. Certainly “religion” is one of those areas in which it is difficult to discern truth, and isn’t that what we are looking for (truth)?

    Three religions, Judaism, Islam, and Christianity. Which is true and which isn’t? As to Jesus, the Jews say he was a false messiah and has done more damage to the Jewish faith than anyone or anything else in history. Christians claim that Jesus is God, one of the three persons who make up a Trinity, God in his fulness. Muslims claim Jesus was a great prophet, but definitely not divine, not God, and had no power to save or redeem people. Three perspectives on Jesus. How do we discern truth here? Thomas Jefferson, whom you quote, discerned or reasoned that Jesus was a great teacher, but was or is not God and did not perform miracles, and therefore God was not a Trinity of persons. That really puts people in a quandary as to discernment, doesn’t it? That doesn’t take away from your article Rebecca, but it should also be pointed out that discernment isn’t always easy.

    • Rebecca Koerselman says:

      RLG – thanks for your comment. Yes, I heartily agree that religion is an area where discernment is particularly difficult. In general, discernment is a complex exercise that takes practice and does not always end up with truth. Yet, it seems that the process itself is what puts us on the path of wisdom.

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