History’s Victims

Today in class we did a “deep excavation” of Question A from this SHEG Assessment on the Filipino-American conflict. I discussed this question in depth here last week. 40 of my students earned a 1 out of 3 on this question. Nearly 15 of those students wrote clear, concise answers explaining that the Filipinos in the photo were likely imprisoned because America blamed the men for the sinking of the Maine. Most, if not all, of these students answered multiple choice and short answer questions correctly on the Spanish American War and the sinking of the Maine. They also wrote a DBQ on the debate over the annexation of the Philippines. Why, on this question, did students abandon everything they knew to write incredibly wrong answers?

I think the answer lies in this Sam Wineburg article from 2007. Wineburg describes what psychologists call “Spread of Activation” effect and “Availability Heuristic.” Availbility heuristic, Wineburg writes, basically means that “we are biased in the way we process evidence, making use of information that jumps out with the greatest vividness.”

On test day, these 15 students likely did just that – they read background information about the sinking of the Maine in 1898 and saw a photo of Filipinos imprisoned by the U.S. in 1901. Their nodes were activated, their sense of justice (or injustice) triggered, and boom – an incredibly wrong answer about U.S. occupation of the Philippines.

These 15 answers and Wineburg’s insightful case study highlight how difficult and “unnatural” historical thinking is for everyone, not just middle school students. In the end, it is essential for history teachers to focus their efforts on historical thinking because of this difficulty. He writes:

This is why we call history a discipline, a word that carries two essential, but different, meanings. The first refers to the disciplines of the university: those of bodies of knowledge that have accrued over generations, each with its own distinctive means of investigation and form of argument. But the second meaning of ‘discipline’ is no less important. This is the word’s original meaning – the opposite of disorderly, slovenly, whimsical, and capricious. In this sense of discipline, history teaches us to resist first-draft thinking and the flimsy conclusions that are its fruits. This kind of history cultivates caution and teaches us we must engage in a sober accounting of what we do not know. Without this capacity, we are destined to be history’s victims rather than its students.

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