How Should Technology Teach History?

How Should Technology Teach History?


Recently, two efforts to help students “re-live” painful episodes in African American history via digital mediums, ostensibly in honor of Black History Month, have backfired.

On February 4, HSTRY, a Belgium-based startup, took to Twitter to re-enact the trial of two white men in the murder of Emmett Till, an African American teenager, in 1955. (Here’s the timeline on the company’s website; the Tweets are still live.) The 80 tweets sent that day, retelling the trial and its aftermath, immediately came under fire for being inappropriate and insensitive. Shortly afterwards, CEO Thomas Ketchell apologized for “naivety and errors in judgement.”

In another episode, a slavery simulation game produced by WNET and funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Humanities drew the ire of Rafranz Davis, a respected instructional specialist. (The game also allows players to re-live critical eras of American history through different characters, including a Native American boy and a Jewish immigrant girl.) Why, Davis asks “would any person think that slave simulation is a necessary component of curriculum?” (Here’s WNET’s response.)

Both cases took place during Black History Month, usually a time to celebrate contributions of African Americans to American history. In this context, recalling deeply painful, shameful episodes in history, while important to acknowledge, appear incredibly naïve and tone-deaf.

Those creating technology tools to teach history face the same scrutiny as any historian or researcher writing about the subject. At the very least, developers should have some understanding of historiography--the methodology behind creating history content.

Defining exactly what history “is” was a subject of great fascination (and some consternation) during my days as a graduate student studying Chinese history. One of the most thoughtful approaches I’ve encountered comes from Paul Cohen, professor emeritus at Wellesley College, who proposes approaching history with three “keys”:

  • The event: What happened, and in what order?
  • The experience: How did the people there experience it?
  • The myth: How is the event mythologized and remembered today?

Most history classes focus on the describing the event (Point 1), sometimes relying on rote memorization to such mind-numbing extremes that those who manage to stay awake are scarred for life. A good teacher will address the second point by bringing in voices of the people who were present at the event, often through diaries, journals and newspaper clippings. In doing so, the names and dates are given extra color and life that may help engage students.

Both HSTRY and Mission US made an earnest effort to help students better experience history via a medium afforded by digital technologies. Through a conversational tool like Twitter, or a simulation delivered in the format of a game, both parties attempted to add voice, pictures and faces to something that existed mostly in text form.

But history is always subject to interpretation. And to Cohen’s third point, how a moment in history is remembered resonates more than what happened itself. Many scars--both physical and emotional--do not fully heal over time.

Writing history is controversial; after all, it grants one party the authority to create “knowledge” over another. Throughout time, most of what passes for “history” has been written by those in power; the voices of the subjugated and the conquered are rarely heard. Stories about heroic events and Founding Fathers of the past can be twisted to serve political purposes.

My fascination with history stems from detecting and unraveling these myths.

It is difficult enough to present all the different perspectives and experiences on issues as troubling, sensitive and still relevant today like slavery, China-Tibet relations, or any other historical dispute in a 1,000-page textbook or a 100,000 square-foot museum. It is simply impractical to do so in the limited medium afforded by a simulation game, where all the choices and consequences are predetermined, or in 140-character Tweets, without trivializing the issue.

Anyone creating a narrative that is sold as history must be aware of the biases and agenda in the materials and sources used to create the content.

We should keep looking for ways to use technology to support the teaching--and questioning--of history. But whatever path we follow should encourage diversity of thought, discussion and exploration of the complexities and nuances of past events and the context in which momentous decisions were made.

Only by raising dialogue and awareness can the myths of history be discussed and challenged. Otherwise, if history is simply constrained to names, dates and multiple-choice options, it loses its impact and meaning.

And we iron out history’s complexities, we must be ever alert against what I call “pulling an Oklahoma.” This week, state legislators voted to ban teaching AP US History because it focuses too much on what’s “bad about America” instead of extolling “American exceptionalism.”

That makes the path easy, the choices few, and the lessons of history invisible to all.

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