Book Review: Sam Wineburg, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone)

If the modern history textbook was on trial for corrupting the youth, I’d appoint Sam Wineburg as the prosecuting attorney.  His hatred for the standard 1,000-page neon-flashing over-produced textbook was first on display in his 2001 book Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts.  Now, in this new work, Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) (University of Chicago Press, 2018), Wineburg doubles down. The history textbook is a symbol of corruption and bad educational method. The textbook industry is in league with the state and with special interests. The textbook is part of a failed history education complex in which dry content and multiple-choice testing leaves students bewildered, upset, and lacking basic skills of interpretation.

Unlike some educational theorists, Wineburg doesn’t pretend to have all the answers.  Indeed, he is much better at identifying the problems of bad history education than he is at offering a remedy.

First, there is the problem of the average high school student, who is distracted, impolite, and unable to distinguish between real and fake sources. The average student cannot reason his way out of a paper bag, thinks Wineburg. Importantly, however, this is not an attack on the youth or a particular generation. Wineburg, citing empirical evidence, holds an equally poor view of the average adult and the average academic, who holds all kinds of biases and is subject to myriad errors of misperception.

Second, there is the problem of a rigged system of multiple choice testing in history education which maintains a bell curve that ensures a large perception of students will fail exams. Each generation laments the failure of the youth to learn their history, but Wineburg argues that there is no way that the youth can meet the standard that they are held to. Students of one generations are often compared to better performing students of the past. But, in truth, there was no “golden age of fact recollection” and there is no evidence to believe that students are spending less time cramming history content now than in the past. It is the case, however, that test-makers replace easy questions with difficult ones until they have created a tool to establish a bell curve distribution. In such a situation, it becomes statistically impossible for students as a whole to do better than average.  Low test scores, guaranteed by this system, then serve as inspiration for political posturing about education policy.

Wineburg’s analysis of the role of public funding in public education demonstrates a rare understanding of opportunity costs. The Teaching American History program, which ran from 2000 to 2012, receives special scrutiny. In particular, Wineburg points out that there was no method for assessing whether the program worked or could work. Despite millions of federal dollars pumped into an attempt to increase student historical knowledge, it was unclear even to the experts what kinds of historical lessons were actually effective and which were not. The program was a boon for educators, but the cost-benefit ratio – it’s impact on actual learning – isn’t known.

It is refreshing to see an academic willing to criticize both left and right of the political spectrum, yet openly acknowledge some of his own biases and attempts to counter them. After criticizing the influence of right-wing think tanks on history education, Wineburg presents a chapter on Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the U.S., arguing that Zinn’s book is like a standard government-backed textbook with no nuance or uncertainty. This chapter has already received quite a bit of attention online, as the far-left rallies to defend Zinn. Wineburg’s criticisms of Zinn’s omissions seem well-placed (especially as Wineburg highlights the inability of Zinn to recognize new research on communist spies in the 20th century U.S.).  I only note that this chapter doesn’t fit well with the rest of the book.

Later sections of the book seem to be a history of how Wineburg and his colleagues received grant money to design projects to assess historical learning. It is easy here for me or others to get jealous of this triumphalist story, and I’m left wondering if he ever applied for a grant that he did not get?  While Wineburg displayed such awareness of opportunity costs elsewhere when criticizing the Teaching American History program, it seems that he doesn’t apply this concept with assessing his own impact. How many website hits is a dollar worth? If a grant for $1,000,000 results in a website that gets 100,000 hits, is that a success? How do we assess the assessors?

Wineburg’s criticism of Bloom’s taxonomy of learning, earlier in the book, seems spot on. There is a powerful inertia of educational theories, so that even when they are clearly in error, they continue to exert influence in the classroom. Sometimes it is the simplicity of a theory that aids its popularity. Most of the time, it is just too difficult for teachers to learn new ways of teaching. The inertia of history-as-content will be difficult to rout out. Historical thinking is difficult. Teaching historical thinking is difficult.  Perhaps critical thinking is not for everyone. I get the impression that Wineburg would agree, even if he doesn’t state it outright. The book presents examples of classrooms that became vibrant zones of historical arguments and counterarguments.  But method and a hard-working bright teacher were both needed for this.

In the end, I still don’t know why Wineburg thinks that I “should learn history, despite it being on my phone.” I wonder if that title was simply too good to resist. The touching Acknowledgement section notes that he negotiated with various presses to get this book in print. In that regard, he was quite successful, since the low cover price on the book will certainly help sales and establish his name even more firmly as a leading thinker of historical thinking and history education.

(blog note: I read and wrote this on a flight to Dublin. All errors I blame on jet lag and jealousy)












  1. […] have been a rash of history books recently with incorrect titles..  Sam Weinburg’s Why Study History when its Already on Your Phone has very little to do with justifying learning of history in the age of the smart phone, and  and […]


  2. […] how to think historically. For example, he spends a few pages summarizing the work of Sam Wineburg (my review) showing that historians are more patient and more context-oriented than non-historians. But if […]


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