- Fighting Bad History with Good, or, Why Historians Must Get on the Web Now
Every so often a report comes out from some testing agency demonstrating that Americans don’t know much history. Pundits issue dire warnings about the imminent collapse of the republic under the weight of popular ignorance about the past. We historians make a show of rubbing our hands together and vowing to do a better job of educating the citizenry. Then nothing happens. The republic lives on, the pundits stop shouting, and we go back to teaching classes and writing monographs.
This periodic tearing of hair is interesting for two reasons. First, it shows that we think the public should know more history because if they don’t, bad things will happen. Second, it suggests that we are probably wrong. By all appearances, American citizens know enough history to keep the ship of state heading in the right direction. One could certainly point to exceptions, and that would be an interesting exercise. Yet it seems reasonable to say that the republic has never been seriously threatened as a result of popular ignorance of history. Though we don’t tend to admit it, we seem to be doing a pretty good job of spreading the historical word.
Our success in this regard is remarkable given that our efforts at mass historical education miss a good number of Americans. Only three in four Americans complete high school, where most of the historical heavy lifting is done. Of those three high-school graduates, roughly two will try college. But only one of those two—or a quarter of the total adult population—will receive a college degree. And most of them will have taken very little history when they get their sheepskin. The program I teach in, for example, mandates three semester hours of history of the 120 required for graduation. Of course, teaching isn’t the end of our efforts at public education. We also publish articles and books. But very few people outside the profession ever read what we publish. We write for our peers, for that is what our system of advancement requires.
All this is to say that heretofore we haven’t had to work very hard to educate the public. Yet the Internet may be changing that. In the world of traditional media, historians enjoyed a kind of oligopoly on good historical information. We designed the curricula, wrote the textbooks, taught the classes, published the fundamental research. True, amateurs wrote history books, historical movie scripts, and historical TV programs. But they were few, and their work was clearly distinguishable from ours. On the Internet, however, amateur historians are not few, nor is their work easily identified as such. It cannot be said often enough: the Internet allows anyone to broadcast anything. That may sound wonderfully democratic, but it also may spell trouble. It means that our oligopoly has been broken, that “users”—uncritical, poorly informed, and with axes to grind—are now writing “our” history. Some of that history may be good. But the overwhelming majority of it is and will be bad. Google your own topic of research and review the top results. Likely you will see a Wikipedia entry and a collection of putatively educational sites, all of which are selling something. Think about it: that is the public face of your research; that is what people see when they read about your topic. They will never encounter your articles or monographs because the Internet crowds them out. Google lists what is popular and your work probably isn’t very popular. Naturally it’s very good, and it’s much better than what’s on offer in cyberspace. But that’s irrelevant. To Internet users, your work does not exist. All the history they see is bad history.
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The old media ensured that the public had some contact with good history; the new media do not. And that process of exclusion could have dire consequences. If all people see is bad history, bad history is what they will...