Opinion: What I Learned in 8th Grade Social Studies

Social studies was not eagerly looked forward to amongst my classmates at Cherokee Middle School. Not because the teacher was boring or the right clique of students were assembled in the same place. The reason was because they found history to not be a stimulating topic of discussion. Every week our teacher (whose name escapes me now, making me feel terrible) would host a ‘whiteboard quiz’; we grouped together with a handheld whiteboard and dry-erase markers. From there it was test of speed to who could correctly answer with the fastest response. I wasn’t socially adept in 8th grade, but strangely, everyone wanted to be in my group at whiteboard quiz time. Although I was the only student who ever wrote down answers because not surprisingly, I actually read the textbook and remembered the material. While walking the hallways, I picked up some chatter by the lockers and heard students say that they don’t understand why they should learn history, or that it’s boring, or how does it help them get into better schools. Fast forward nearly seventeen years and those same frustrations still exists, only now they’re being used to guide decisions larger than responses on a whiteboard quiz.

I’ve talked about the importance of studying history on here before, but it extends beyond the notion of learning about the past to make better decisions on future policy. Every time I check Twitter, hundreds of tweets from accounts with questionable or cringeworthy statements are flying around.

  • THE SOUTH WAS FIGHTING FOR STATES RIGHTS
  • YOU’RE CLEARLY JUST A STUDENT SO YOU DON’T KNOW THE REAL HISTORY
  • YOU’RE VERSION OF HISTORY IS WOKE, READ FROM BOTH SIDES
  • HOLOCAUSTS AGAINST JEWS DIDN’T HAPPEN IN THE 12TH CENTURY. THE CHURCH HAD COMPLETE CONTROL.
  • Y’all realize the Black Death spread all over Europe because the rich people wanted their imported goods. Trade must go on! (Saw this gem just now)

(Side note: don’t respond with all caps, that just makes you look like a jerk)

I don’t know where to begin when I see these statements. How can someone ignore the role of slavery in the American Civil War? How does someone gloss over the Holocaust as a footnote? To briefly play devil’s advocate, there really is just a lot of content to read and internalize, especially if the subject occurs in the more modern time period. This can be daunting for many people who encounter the amount of reference material and are turned off at the prospect of spending a great deal of time getting through the content. I had those feelings myself. My history teacher from my freshman year of high school assigned a 400-page essay on the origins of the American Revolution and I thought ‘how the hell am I supposed to read and write a commentary about this in two weeks??’ I think historians, archivists, history communicators, curators, and teachers need to be patient people by nature because it’s crucial to invest time to really read and analyze sources. Some simply don’t have that patience. They would rather spend time doing something else. This is especially true with society today as we place a different value on our times and schedules are crammed full of appointments, meetings, activities, and more. This leaves them open to something worse; historical narratives warped to fit their worldview. History is interpretative by nature; it’s the basis for debates, dissertations, research papers, articles, and books. What shocks me today is how easy people can be swayed by fallacious historical arguments and flawed narratives.

I learned something valuable in the 8th grade; we mustn’t take for granted that what we hear is always a factual truth. We need to have the critical thinking skills to determine what makes a sound argument. Yes, history is an important academic subject, but how we gain an understanding of the source material is just as crucial. I could have easily told my classmates completely false answers on the whiteboard quizzes and they would have written them without a second thought. They always saw me with the history textbook and raising my hand in class so the natural assumption was that my answers were always correct. The same happens today with historical information on social media. People post what they think is their version of history and people take it at face value. This is dangerous. What can we do but be horrified at whatever people post online as grossly inaccurate, even harmful seditious content, but masked as historical information? This masquerade causes severe harm and division.

I have one simple request for the public: please check the sources for yourself. Don’t take whatever is told to you at face value. You can quickly become the unwilling participant in a misinformation mass-production machine. If I believed everything that people told me about the American Civil War, I would have shifted from learning in school that it had roots in the institution of slavery to believing far right figures that immaculate, white, God-fearing angels of salvation like Robert E. Lee were fighting for his nation’s independence. Civil War Twitter is a harsh landscape for anyone who attempts to validate their post-truth arguments about the Confederacy. There are historians just waiting to tear them down like a statue (yeah, I went there).

I don’t profess to be a perfect expert on every historical subject. In fact, I don’t think anyone is because that would require having perfect recall and an almost infinite memory. The network of historians and historical educators is immense and therefore we rely on one another for trustworthy information. I do know that whenever it comes to having a sound historical debate, it needs to be done in an informed way; not with a Twitter-bot who’s sole target is degrading historical narratives. Even at this very moment (8:39 PM CST) I check my Twitter feed and misinformation arguments about the Black Death are flying around. I’m not sure how social media picks its targets to argue, but it’s not surprising at how frustrated historians, librarians, teachers, archivists, and history communicators are these days. No wonder so many of us drink after we log out of Twitter for the evening.

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