Sources on history and learning – Sam Wineburg’s Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past


Background and Publications

Sam Wineburg, Historical Thinking and Other Unnatural Acts: Charting the Future of Teaching the Past (Temple University Press, 2001).


Website at Stanford University: –The website lists such information as other publications and his background. You can also find links to some of his writings from that webpage.


Quotations from Wineburg

On reading comprehension

Wineburg notes that reading comprehension often becomes what is measurable by testing, such as “the ability to respond correctly to multiple-choice questions that presume an unambiguous right answer.” (80)


On visual images

“Through this repeated viewing [of Forrest Gump, something covered in the prior 3 pages], the video comes to function in a role not unlike that of cherished writings and sacred texts in earlier times. Snippets of video dialogue offer convenient metonymies—their invocation calls up a flood of feelings, values, and associations. Because the human mind remembers detail far better than its provenance, the detail remains but its source falls away. So John is correct when he says that he always hears ‘baby killers’ but it’s likely that he hears it most often from a character whose lines were written by the screenwriter Robert Zemeckis. In other words, the fictionalized past, not the historical event, becomes John’s frame of reference for the present.” (240)


“The images shared by our participants illustrate some of the differences between collective and historical memory. For example, scholars across the disciplines have examined the question of whether it was common for veterans to be ‘spat upon’ on their return to the United States. That literature, from Jerry Lembcke’s sociology to Bob Greens’ journalism to archival research examining 380 newspaper reports of ‘home-comings’ by Thomas Beamish, Harvey Molotch, and Richard Flacks at the University of California, Santa Barbara, suggests that this collective image has little basis other than its crystallization in the media.”(242)

On sources in the view of historians and of students

“Such beliefs may help to explain differences in the use of the ‘sourcing heuristic,’ the practice of reading the source of the document before reading the actual text. Historians used this heuristic nearly all of the time (98 percent), while students used it less than a third (31 percent). For most students, the text’s attribution carried no special weight; it was merely the final bit of information in a string of textual propositions.” (76)



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