While I enjoy studying history and reading the stories of the past, I equally enjoy studying the writing of history — historiography — which is “the writing of history based on the critical examination of sources, the selection of particulars from the authentic materials, and the synthesis of particulars into a narrative that will stand the test of critical methods.” (Merriam-Webster) Recently I taught a course at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at George Mason University that I entitled “A New Look at the Old Dominion.” The purpose of the course was not so much to retell the history of Virginia as it was to examine the way in which the story of the Commonwealth has been told over the decades. Certainly the story of Virginia is ideal for a historiographical analysis. Much of the history has been glamorized for so long as to leave a confusing and contradictory understanding of the state’s past. I have been particularly concerned about the picture of the Commonwealth presented in state-written textbooks that were used in our public schools over the years. One could get the impression from these books that the land settled as Virginia was god-given to the colonists that they could save it from the heathens who inhabited it, that slavery was good for the slaves, that the federal government was the bad guy in every controversy, and that states’ rights should be preeminent over human rights. Fortunately, through the hard work of many individuals much of that misinformation has been removed from the classroom.
My concern for the future is how individual citizens, historians and teachers deal with the deluge of fake news that is swirling around us. The presidential election of 2016 is historic in the amount of fake news to which voters were exposed through the new technologies of social media. Of great concern is the inability of traditional news sources to deal with the fake stories and the gullibility of some of the public to believe whatever they read or hear from their identified news source regardless of the lack of credibility that source may have. Journalists themselves were even questioning what was true among all the falsehoods, denials, and diversion to other topics that were going on during the campaign. Certainly historians will face a monumental task of explaining to future generations what happened during this phase of our history.
If our democratic republic is to exist, we cannot simply wait for future analysis to understand what is going on. Certainly students in school should learn about science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) for future potential employment and consumerism, but I believe that for the future of our country students need to learn the tools and methods of historiography: gathering and weighing evidence, critical thinking, evaluating sources, and others. Our citizens and voters need to arm themselves with the tools of social scientists as they choose their leaders. That is why we need more civics education in our schools.