James W. Loewen‘s Lies My Teacher Told Me was first published in 1995, and I had just graduated from high school. I read the book my freshman year of college. In thinking about the malleability of the past, I first think of this book — my first ah-ha moment when realizing that much of the history content I had learned and the narrative in which it was presented was not the iron-clad truth. I learned that history was messy, and yes, malleable. The digital world has both complicated and clarified historical thinking, historiography, and history classrooms.
The digital age has complicated our work as educators because we can not longer rely on a singular authoritative text. This is not a bad thing, but it does make lesson plans and class preps more challenging for teachers. How do we choose which primary sources and secondary sources to use in our classrooms? Are we providing students with the freedom to draw their own conclusions or are we giving the illusion of choice? When I first began teaching in 2000, my school system emphasized having an “essential question” for each lesson. The digital world, with its seemingly infinite resources make the “essential question” exercise even more essential. Students need to know what they are trying to find, and have the intellectual training to recognize and achieve learning objectives. Likewise, teachers need to be able to articulate learning objectives and outcomes.
With digital resources at our fingertips, students and teachers can share in the fluid and ongoing process of historical and critical thinking. In this way, learning in the digital age has clarified the ways in which we learn history. I had to read Loewen’s book to realize that the past was malleable and motivated/shaped by many forces. Students today come in with this knowledge and with the understanding that there are often multiple versions of “truth.” Often while teaching a student will ask a question, or I will pose a question to the class, and before I can say, “I’m not sure.” or “What do you think?” — students check facts, dates, and answer questions in real-time. They can enter class never having heard of Mother Ann Lee or Henry Clay or Sally Hemmings or Peggy Eaton or Joseph McCarthy, and by the end of class find themselves deep in a rabbit-hole of intellectual intrigue. This is made possible by the devices they hold in their hands or balance on their laps.
Web 2.0 open sources and social media platforms have enabled, and frankly demand, that students ingest information differently and at a different pace than generations before. With this speed and efficiency also comes great responsibility. Teaching students what to do and how to process the malleable past in the digital age — that responsibility is up to us. We, as historians and history educators, are more important that ever.