Google and History

I caught a headline in the West Australian in the supermarket – Don’t learn it, just Google it: Ravlich. (Ravlich being Ms Ljiljanna Ravlich – the Western Australian state Education Minister)

My immediate thought was: she’s right – it will turn out like calculators. Humans will just not do things the hard way when there is a significantly easier way to accomplish the same thing. Especially kids. How often do you run across a kid who can make change in their head? With History, the real challenge is how do you get a useful chronology into kids heads when they have Internet tools like Google and Wikipedia?

Memorizing dates has its drawbacks after all. Its a lot of work, it is unpleasant, and on top of that it doesn’t last. I know what I’d try. I would divide the history I was teaching up into easily memorized periods but leave most of the detailed dates out. Take Wikipedia’s definition of the Renaissance:

In the traditional view, the Renaissance was understood as an historical age that followed the Middle Ages and preceded the Reformation, spanning roughly the 14th through the 16th century.

Then the Enlightenment:

The Age of Enlightenment refers to either the eighteenth century in European philosophy, or the longer period including the seventeenth century and the Age of Reason.

It is often called the “Age of Reason” and is considered to succeed the Renaissance and precede the Age of Enlightenment. Alternatively, it may be seen as the earlier part of the Enlightenment.

In the interests of fewer periods to remember I’d opt for the longer period so it encompasses both the 17th and 18th century.

I once knew the significant dates of Western History cold but I don’t think anyone ever got even a grossly simplified chronological structure of historical periods such as the above firmly fixed in my mind. So I would want students to be able to place particular dates easily within the age to which it belongs. I’d see to it that the kids could place events in the correct period and the periods in the correct sequence and explain their significance – even allowing them at times to use the Internet for research to get their answers. Just like in some circumstances calculators can be taken into exams. Take 1492 in America or 1788 in Australia as dates that would still be committed to memory but would also be less isolated from their context by this approach.. That’s just one idea and I believe there are plenty of solutions and that they will be invented by kids – particularly the brightest and the laziest. They will learn to think about history and many other topics in new ways given the Internet even if we try to stop them.

A trivial example. I was visiting my son’s family and had to drive myself to the airport at 4 AM leaving their car to be picked up later from the parking lot. I asked my daughter in law’s younger brother for directions to the airport knowing that young men of 16 generally know how to get places. Although he is no geek the answer came back. “I don’t know, but I’d look it up on the Internet.” I did and it worked just fine. By the time I was 16 I knew my territory as well as any dog, just like I could make change in my head. But with local maps a click away the motivation is different. You don’t have to know the territory the same way anymore because you can supplement your general knowledge with the specific knowledge you need it so easily.

Now a less trivial example. My son and I were trying to trace an intermittent ignition problem on his car. When we came in from the garage still discussing it, my daughter in law who doesn’t work on cars, but is generally familiar with them because her step-father is a mechanic, looked up what were discussing on the net. What she found was clearly not the answer and we explained why. I thought that would be the end of it, but a little while later she came back with a much better answer. It involved faulty coils that produced just the symptoms we were experiencing and that they were subject to a manufacturer’s recall. She was right. Her information was actually better and more timely than me and my son or any mechanic was likely to come up without the recall information. In both these examples I found myself dealing with an entirely different mentality. The mentality of people who had grown up with the Net.

I have also used two examples because they illustrate different dynamics. In the first the normal human tendency to follow the path of least resistance is obvious. The Minister is probably right, as far as history is concerned, we will look up dates where we once memorized them. Even I recognized at 16 that I would soon forget the date of the battle of Lepanto. The second example illustrates a deeper aspect of the Internet. It empowers anyone so motivated to get to the bottom of a far greater number of issues than ever before. Sure there is a lot junk on the Internet and we are going to have to teach our kids how to sort the wheat from the chaff more than ever before, but it breaks the monopoly of teachers and textbooks and the educational establishment in general on knowledge. Just like bloggers have broken the monopoly on news formerly enjoyed by the MSM.

I’ll return to our Minister of Education and the politics behind her Google remark to show what I mean. The underlying political issue is over the teaching of history between the Federal and state governments.

Ms Ravlich was responding to a push by Federal Education Minister Julie Bishop for a compulsory history curriculum for Years 9 and 10.

WA students from Years 1 to 10 do not study Australian history as a separate subject. It is taught as part of the Time, Continuity and Change course.

Not too surprising that there is a tug of war for the curriculum between the Liberal (i.e. conservative) Federal government and the Labor state government. Our Minister probably revealed a fair bit about her ideological position was when she spat the dummy (dummy = pacifier for you Yanks) when questioned about a particular date.

And when asked about the significance of the date 1788 the year the First Fleet landed she replied, I am not getting into that, and hung up the phone.

Writing from the Conservative side of the argument about the effect of moral relativism on the teaching of history, Michael Barone recently characterized this ideological struggle for the history curriculum here:

These are the ideas that have been transmitted over a long generation by the elites who run our universities and our schools, and who dominate our mainstream media. They teach an American history with the good parts left out and the bad parts emphasized. We are taught that some of the Founding Fathers were slaveholders — and are left ignorant of their proclamations of universal liberties and human rights.

Personally. I think there really has been a too big swing of the pendulum in teaching history, but the ideological struggle over the curriculum isn’t the same as it once was because the rules of the game have been changed by the Internet. Neither side has the possibility of reestablishing the monopoly on ideas that they believe is still within their grasp. No matter what you teach, there are other viewpoints instantly available on the Internet. If one side or the other manages to get enough power to skew the curriculum seriously the kids who are troubled by it will find the counter arguments on their own. The cat will always get out of the bag. Kids will learn to give the expected answers as they always have but they will recognize propaganda more easily than their grandparents did.

In the old way of looking at things we can sue school boards over teaching or not teaching Intelligent Design or state and Federal governments can wrangle over the history curriculum. But in todays world if you feel you kids are getting poisoned curriculum you can help them do research on the Net to counter it. If you are Web minded you can join with others to organize web sites to specifically deal with the imbalance. Imagine any proponent of Intelligent Design or Post Colonial history finding their curriculum comprehensively challenged at a URL circulating among their students. Delicious.

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