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Odd Wisconsin Archive

If You Look At It Right

Besides the pleasure it gives, history is a powerful tool for teaching young people to think critically. By giving them primary sources to analyze and requiring them to explain conflicting viewpoints, educators help kids develop skills that will serve them the rest of their lives.

With this in mind, some years ago our Office of School Services designed a lesson plan based on conflicting descriptions of two battles in the Black Hawk War. It asks students to read the versions of events that U.S. Army leaders provided in reports to their superiors and contrast them with the versions recorded in Black Hawk's autobiography. (Starting this week, we are streaming out a different Black Hawk War document each day at our Historic Diaries site, which will greatly expand the opportunities for educators teaching this pivotal event.)

Similarly, our online collections attempt to provide multiple perspectives, no matter how odd they may seem today. For instance, 19th-century white settlers didn't know what to make of the remarkable effigy mounds they found in Wisconsin. Some of them proposed that they'd been made by one of the Lost Tribes of Israel, or by a mysterious race of Mound Builders who had lived here for a time and departed. These sorts of documents are included at Turning Points in Wisconsin History not because they're historically accurate but to enable teachers and students to develop analytical powers by critiquing them.

This is especially important now that almost anyone with a computer can become an author and promote their views to thousands of readers. In recent years, post-modern ideas about authorship -- especially, the concept that meaning is made in the mind of the reader, not in the text created by the author -- have undermined traditional standards of historical veracity. A character on the 1980s "Cagney & Lacey" television show phrased this nicely when she said, "I don't believe in truth. I only believe in point of view."

This perspective is especially dangerous when applied uncritically to the overwhelming amount of information that the Internet provides. It prompts many young people, in particular, to assume all Web sites are equally authoritative, or to consider all opinions equally valid. It can allow blatantly absurd claims, such as that the Holocaust didn't happen or that aliens created the pyramids under Rock Lake, to go unchallenged.

The post-modernists may be correct that meaning is made in our minds while we read a text, rather than when the author types it on a keyboard. But that does not imply that all ideas that enter our minds are equally trustworthy. Just a few moments of quietly observing one's own thoughts flit from place to place, like a butterfly in a perennial garden or a dry leaf on the wind, reveals how treacherous our untrained thinking can be.

To sort out conflicting evidence, choose what to believe, and decide how to act, young people need to possess critical thinking skills (so do the rest of us, of course). History classes, and programs such as National History Day, are excellent devices for teaching those skills.

We take seriously our responsibility to help educators in this important work. That's why we visit classrooms, lead teachers' workshops, prepare online materials such as this critical thinking handbook, give conference presentations, publish books, and respond many times a day to incoming questions from students and teachers.

History may be great fun for some of us, but we're probably eccentric. More importantly, it's a crucial tool in helping every young person become a thoughtful, responsible citizen.

:: Posted in Curiosities on April 1, 2007

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