Teaching History to Undergrads: An Interview with Sam Wineburg

Randall Stephens

Sam Wineburg is a professor in the School of Education at Stanford University and director of the Stanford History Education Group.  He has written and taught widely on historical consciousness, questions of identity and history in recent America, and the uses of the past.  He's the author of Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001); Reading Like a Historian: Teaching Literacy in Middle and High School Classrooms (TC Press, 2011), with Daisy Martin and Chauncey Monte-Sano; and editor of Knowing, Teaching, and Learning History: National and International Perspectives (NYU Press, 2000) with Peter N. Stearns and Peter Seixas. (In 2006 Joe Lucas interviewed Wineburg in Historically Speaking.)  

Below I ask Wineburg about one of his courses and the challenges of history education.

Randall Stephens: What made you decide to teach a course on "Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States & the Quest for Historical Truth"?

Sam Wineburg: When I moved to Stanford from the University of Washington in 2002, I began to encounter very bright students in our Masters of Teaching program who were highly critical of their high school history books, but who reserved a sacred place for Zinn's A People's History. It had been years since I read the book, so I went to the bookstore, purchased the latest edition and started to read. The first thing that popped out at me was that despite the fact that the book had been in print for over two decades no new scholarship had been incorporated in Zinn's narrative. Chapters on the Revolution, the Civil War, World War II, the Cold War and everything prior to 1980 were frozen in amber. It was as if, once you came to your historical conclusions, you never had to rethink your position in light of new scholarship—such as the opening up of the Soviet archives and the light these documents shed on spies in America, or the tell-all exposes of the Emperor Hirohito's inner coterie and how these memoirs changed our ideas about how close (actually, how distant) the Japanese were to surrender before Hiroshima. The more I started to dig the more I started to realize how useful A People's History would be pedagogically, particularly for students who conceptualize the past in stark binaries of true and false. 

Stephens: Why have historians had such varying views of Zinn's bestselling work?

Wineburg: I think most historians agree that the book is pretty weak as a piece of historical scholarship. The most favorable review of the book was by Eric Foner, who when he published his review in 1980, was fairly close to Zinn politically. But even Foner's review spelled out serious reservations. Since then, Michael Kazin, the editor of Dissent and a historian with impeccable leftist credentials, gave A People's History a good thrashing in a review published in 2004. It seems to me that the most ardent fans of the book come not from the community of professional historians, but from the ranks of high school teachers, Hollywood personalities, and Amazon.com reviewers.

Stephens: How do you try to get students to think about the debates of history or the contested nature of history?

Wineburg: I do what Louis Gottschalk did in developing the History Workshop back in the 1930s at Chicago. I have students take a claim and then follow the chain of evidence for it back to its source. This is not easy with Zinn, as the book contains no footnotes. So, we have to figure out where Zinn gets his information by looking at his bibliography (there is no archival research in the book—all of Zinn's references are to secondary sources). So, I have students go back to the books Zinn read, and then have them go to the notes in these books to try to figure out how Zinn has used this information and whether its original context has been preserved. This course is part of Stanford's freshmen seminar program, so my students are young people who only months before had been in high school. They have never experienced anything like this before. Nearly all of them are survivors of AP history, where history class meant memorizing copious amounts of factual information to do well on the 80 multiple choices items so they could get into a college like Stanford. They know a great deal of historical information but have little sense of what history is as a discipline, as a unique way of knowing. And too often our broad survey courses assume that undergraduates already have this foundation in place, when what students actually know how to do is score well on standardized tests.

Stephens: To what extent are high school teachers in the US getting students to engage in historical thinking?

Wineburg: I am loathe to generalize to all history teachers. At the same time, all we have to do is to look at a decade of No Child Left Behind, a failed policy inherited by the Obama administration and given new life by it. With a relentless focus on high-stakes testing there is little time to engage students in the kind of focused analyses that truly develops the critical capacity for thought. I sometimes see high school classrooms that do this when I consult with independent schools. But the reality that most public school teachers deal with is quite different. Becker's notion of "every man his own historian" has never been more pertinent than in the age of Google. Students know how to find information but many are ill-equipped to answer whether that information should be believed in the first place. In that sense, teaching students how to think historically has never been more essential to the vitality and ongoing health of the republic. If you don't believe me, just tune into Glen Beck the next time he hosts David Barton.