Authority and historiography – who says?

One thing I’ve been thinking about this week is teaching children critical thinking regarding the Internet. Not just the safety issues – but how to evaluate sites, how to judge what you’re reading and why it’s there.

As a former reporter, issues of credibility are near and dear to my heart. And the Wikipedia issue comes up over and over again when dealing with students. But a comment that Danah Boyd made in this interview struck me: essentially she says that while Wikipedia gets a bad rap among some educators, it can also be a great tool in that it makes visible the process of how knowledge is created. When I was in school (many years ago) my history teacher made a point of teaching us historiography as well as history. We had weekly discussions about the historians who wrote the texts we used, and what their motivations were, and why they wrote what they did. For instance, compare Howard Zinn and Samuel Eliot Morrison on the Civil War.

Here’s where Wikipedia could be a great tool, I think. Unlike standard texts, you can actually see the process that the article goes through as it’s written and edited. You can follow discussions and arguments about what should or shouldn’t be included. And you can track down just who is saying that (to some degree, the site still allows some anonymity.) I can envision an assignment asking students to compare several articles on a single topic – using Wikipedia and more traditional reference sources. Who wrote this? How do we know that? What might their motivation be?

The topic works for learning about history, but also for developing a critical eye when evaluating resources. The comment that kids today believe anything they read online, but it’s true in some cases (and not just kids, I can’t believe how many times I send my parents links to Snopes.)

I started thinking about this when I was doing work for my library and technology class, but, oddly enough, I was brought back to it in the reading for my Children’s Literature class. Reading “My Brother Sam is Dead”  I was struck by the sympathetic portrayal of a Tory family in the Revolutionary War, something I can’t recall coming across as a child. In fact, I don’t think I had ever come across a positive portrayal of the British in that context until about a year ago, when my local PBS station aired Rebels and Redcoats, which tells the story of the American Revolution from a British perspective. When you suddenly have to think about “well, who says” it can change your view of things.

So, still developing this thought, but I’ll have to see how I can work this into my studies. Think there could be some good potential here.

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About mkschoen

In my previous life, I was a reporter and editor covering technology and business for sites including eWeek, ZDNet and CNET News.com. Now I’m a student working towards a master’s in library science.
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2 Responses to Authority and historiography – who says?

  1. Pingback: Larry Sanger interview | A font of useless information

  2. Pingback: Wikipedia and Historiography | A font of useless information

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