Reading Like a Historian: Antidote to the (Fake) News Wars?

It takes very few conversations these days to understand it is very hard for individuals who view the world from one perspective to hear, understand, and appreciate an alternative point of view. Increasingly, we watch different news sources, read different publications, and have a hard time agreeing on what is “fact” versus what is “fake.” It is easy to stick with our safe set of comfortable friends and colleagues and shake our heads, agreeing that those other guys are foolish—or worse. And everyone involved becomes more entrenched. A worse scenario for flexibly creative thinking is hard to imagine, yet when have we needed it more?

I thought about that dilemma as I reviewed the Stanford History Education Group’s website, Reading Like a Historian. The materials include a series of lessons framed around a central historical question, to be investigated via primary source materials. I generally love history lessons that focus on primary materials. They can bring the story back into history, make the characters as real as any soap opera (and better than most), and help students envision the inquiries that constitute genuine history.

All that is still true, but viewing the materials today I saw yet another possible benefit. Throughout history, groups of people have had varied points of view, sometimes easy to understand, sometimes less so. But each time students engage with historical dilemma they are forced to come face-to-face with the idea that people viewed their situation from very different vantage points. Understanding those perspectives, and how they came to be, is essential to historical understanding. It made me wonder, might investigating historical differences make it easier to think reasonably about those today? I’m not sure, but it seems possible, and definitely worth trying. There are lots of ways to consider such issues, but for high school teachers, Reading Like a Historian might provide a way to begin. For more information, check their website. If you set up an account, lessons and assessment are free to download. You might also take a look at some of the videos of Reading Like a Historian in action. If you take a step into historical research, whatever the source, you might think about helping students think about ways individuals across history dealt with differences might relate to issues today. Remember, transfer doesn’t happen without prompting! Think about questions like:

  1. In this situation, A and B disagreed about X. How did their perspectives on X affect the way they viewed one another?
  2. When A and B were in conflict, what strategies did they use to solve their problems? How did their views about the other side affect their problem solving?
  3. Have you known of a situation in which two groups disagreed so intensely they had trouble solving problems together? For example, even high school athletic rivalries can affect community problems.

Helping students consider how perspectives shape our choices, both historically and in the present may help some of our current conceptual gridlock. At least I have to hope so, for creative solutions.

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