Published Date

January 7, 2000

Resource Type



Digital Methods, Teaching Methods, Visual Culture

AHA Topics

Teaching & Learning, Undergraduate Education

This is part of the Teaching and Learning in the Digital Age: Reconceptualizing the Introductory Survey Course project.

The Impact of Electronic Media on the Understanding and Teaching of History

By David Trask

Introductory Remarks

This paper grows out of thirty years of teaching experience and was triggered by my changing experiences with “resonance.” My own changes in historical understandings aside, I have long been struck by changes in the way students responded to or understood what I taught. Sometimes my ideas resonated with their understandings and sometimes they didn’t. I find it easiest to assess the pattern of changes in class room resonance—and changes in the way history has resonated with students—by thinking about the French Revolution, a constant presence in my modern western civ course.

I have always enjoyed the topic but the actions and motivations of the revolutionaries seem to have become more and more mysterious to students over time. When I started teaching I used Georges Lefebvre’s Coming of the French Revolution which essentially covers May to October of 1789 and is filled with a lot of unfamiliar terminology—orders, estates, parlement and so on—but it is also a very linear presentation with each group performing its decisive, on-stage role almost as if it were a section of an orchestra summoned to a solo by the conductor. It is a story of group more than individual action.

It stopped being a good choice for student reading in the early Eighties. Students couldn’t wade through the terminology of the ancien regime and couldn’t relate to group action. Then I switched to Jordan, The King’s Trial. Even though this story occurs only a few years later—August 1792–January 1793—students really got into this book. The language was the modern language of rights, not the old language of estates. There were fewer barriers to their immediate understanding of the issues and there were a lot of elements of soap opera in it. The center of the drama was a king who never seemed as guilty to students as he did to many in the Convention. The French Revolution became a personal story. It resonated with the students. It made sense to them. They responded. So the concept of resonance covers general connections to an era or event, what makes sense to them.

But I don’t use this book any more. I assign (or try to assign) documents which are individually very short in part because I believe in the importance of primary sources and in part because students don’t handle long readings very well. They often complain that it is the same thing over and over again. Most recently, the examination question requiring students to reconstruct the chain of events of the French Revolution as part of an explanation of why things happened, has become more and more difficult for them. They reorganize the events in ways that, though logical to them, are not historically accurate, and ascribe motivations from the world of advertising. Thus the title of this paper: Did the Sans-culottes wear Nikes? The paper is not subtitled “Understandings of History from the World of Advertising” because I think the issues of the impact of electronic media are more pervasive, more interesting, and more important for the understanding of history than that.

American Historical Association
Chicago, Illinois
January 7, 2000

Imagining our way forward to the people that we, or our children, may become is an exercise we need to undertake if we are to live through these changes successfully [the changes related to the development of electronic media] and make good use of the chances the world offers us. . . . But those of us-even a culture’s elite teachers, scientists, scholars, writers, artists, and intellectuals-who do not look forward in this way may expect to be marginalized in the struggles to make sense of ourselves and our world.—James O’Donnell 1

My goal today is to explore some the implications of the following statement:

We are at a moment where people who are products of the age of print, most all of us, are trying to introduce an academic discipline (history, of course) embedded in the conventions and understandings of print media, to students whose facility with the print world has been added onto their primary familiarity with the world of electronic media.

Why is it necessary to address this question?

Historians traditionally avoid making predictions about the future; isn’t that what I am proposing to do? I want to make a distinction between making predictions and forming some working hypotheses about the world which historians and students presently inhabit. Some historians feel embattled by the present national climate for historical study while others assure us that the climate for history remains excellent. Do the differing assessments reflect intellectual style or are they based on what activities the writer examines while evaluating society’s support for history? Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen recently conducted a national survey whose findings suggest that Americans feel a strong relationship to the past; unfortunately survey respondents reported that they don’t base much of this feeling on the books written or classes taught by professional historians. It is important to note that museums rate much higher with the general public as a vital source for a sense of connection to the past.2) What the historical profession needs to do is to address the sense that what we do does not resonate well with the general public or publics. I want to leave for another day the consideration of the broader issues of what the relationship between the profession and the public is or should be. Instead I want to address a point of undeniable connection between the profession and society-the classroom. While it may be somewhat related to the way teachers approach their work, the many topics of discussion on the H-TEACH listserv underscore that a significant number of faculty feel frustrated by student performance (even as they enjoy the opportunity to discuss these concerns with colleagues). My claim in this paper is that a fuller understanding of how electronic media have reshaped the understandings, perceptions and expectations that students bring to the classroom is the necessary first step to providing effective historical instruction and a sense of the historical to our students.3

What are some of the possible impacts of electronic media?

There is no shortage of hypotheses of how electronic media-television and computer-may affect and, indeed, have affected the worldviews of their participants. In this regard we need to realize that the “hypodermic” injection of a new media does not affect all societies or even all members of the same society in the same way. On the other hand as new media create new relationships among people and among different parts of the world-and create new ways of perceiving old relationships or understandings-we can say that people experience a remixing of their world including their sense of its possibilities and realities.4 Where one was placed (born) in the midst of this process of remixing has a major impact on one’s sense of the meaning of the changes. In general what are some of the possible changes accompanying the replacement of the linear, print world by the nonlinear world of electronic media? Because changes can be evaluated in different ways, I have tried to suggest some alternate ways of appraising each of the following potential impacts of electronic media. In no particular order, some of the ramifications include:

  • Television is becoming the primary component of the “national memory” that students and society possess, creating a truncated-or enhanced-understanding of the past.
  • Television may diminish the ability of people to read while computers may require and reward reading. The inability to read-or to focus on a single topic for an extended period of time-may be a measure of lost skill as identified by Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) or may represent the emergence of a new skill needed to process information in the electronic age.5
  • Television and the computer may be facilitating a sense of radical individualism in American society that is socially disruptive but personally liberating. This trend is captured by the notion that “if it’s about me, it must be interesting.”6
  • Electronic media may empower learners by placing unprecedented amounts of information at the fingertips of students and citizens while restructuring the role of the teacher and the classroom.
  • Electronic media may be undermining many of the fictions of the past that supported hierarchies which were oppressive of human aspiration; electronic media may also undermine the national narrative (fictions?) which ties countries together.7
  • The flood of information, the rise of radical individualism, and the distrust of the state, may make learning as a part of character formation an impossible goal as people are drawn to a recapitulative style of learning in which students use programs or course work as a springboard for discussing their own concerns with their peers rather than seeking to master course content as a worthwhile end in itself.8
  • Global media may be significantly restructuring the role of the nation state because they (global media) facilitate the growth of global entities which are more powerful than many nation states as well as micro-loyalties which are emotionally more satisfying than the bond felt with the nation state. The long-standing tie between national history and national historians, a basic justification for continued public funding for education, could be challenged by this trend.9
  • Computers make it possible for people, especially students, to explore different aspects of their emotions and interests in the privacy of a chat room under assumed identities-or it may facilitate asocial behavior as people work our their sense of themselves in the absence of other people.10
  • Electronic media free us from the constraints of time and space-or they shatter some of the basic categories we use to organize our understanding of the world.11
  • Electronic media may increase an emotional understanding of the world at the expense of the rational-analytical-or will break the stranglehold of rationality on western society.
Why is discussion of the relationship of these issues to the classroom either absent or trivial?

Societies and cultures have a variety of ways of addressing change, even sweeping change. In the United States we have employed several mutually reinforcing strategies to put off dealing directly with the world of the contemporary classroom. Let me today just suggest what they are. First of all we spent a number of years blaming our students for failing to measure up to past standards. By labeling them as Generation X we were able to argue that this group of students was weak instead of regarding them as residents of a world dominated by electronic media. Second, American culture is deeply imbued with “technological enthusiasm” and a belief that technology is a (presumably) neutral element in any social setting. Together these views of technology can often trigger the charge of “luddism” for anyone who tries to go too deeply into the relationship between technology and culture. This condition, coupled with the radical individualism of the present, forestalls most public discussion of how our society is changing. Finally recent debates about the “historical” in American society have revolved around which facts are the most important to know. There has not been a lot of discussion about the role of historical understanding to a society or how one acquires that understanding. Because the focus on fact is not obviously tied to issues of media shift, electronic media were not widely discussed outside select professional circles. Furthermore, when electronic media are addressed in this context, the discussion often centers on the difference between good and bad content rather than on any inherent traits of the media themselves. [For a fuller discussion of the issues in this paragraph-and related sources-see Appendix I.]

How can we get at the true impact of electronic media on historical understanding?

The challenges we face in the classroom are society-wide and cultural, not generational and transient. It is the position of this paper that historians need to understand how electronic media have affected the relationship of students to the analytical processes of historians and also to reflect on how historical stories “resonate” with students raised in the age of electronic media. Taken together, these understandings should yield a good initial understanding of how we need to rethink intellectual issues related to our teaching in order to be more effective. This is not a paper about technique. Many advertisements-and many articles-hold that the electronic age is largely about managing large flows of information with the right software.

Historical Analysis. To assess the impact of electronic media on student facility with historical analysis, historians must rethink 1) the core elements of historical study and the construction of historical argument which have often been absorbed by historians through years of immersion in print sources and 2) the relationship between these often print-dependent elements of historical analysis and the classrooms where these elements are deployed to introduce our students (and citizens) to the study of history. The discussion of these issues will shuttle us back and forth between the assumptions of historical study and the social and cultural environment in which historians teach. For teachers these issues include historical reality and historical understanding—what they are, what they do, how we develop them and how our students can develop and use them to their profit in this age of electronic media or in any age. Then these insights have to be molded to fit the classroom environment. In one sense the issue is similar to teaching students about a culture that is truly alien to them, a culture where the instructor cannot assume any familiarity on the part of students. My fear with this statement is that it implies that our major task is cultural translation-and that is true only if we mean translation of the most pervasive sort.

Let’s conceptualize the issue this way.12 A lecture or a textbook or a monograph—or an exam answer or a student paper—is a “package” of historical information that has been developed according to broad criteria that undergird the practice of history. This package combines a number of different kinds of building blocks to achieve a cogent, coherent historical argument. As a first step I suggest that we identify some of the categories of knowledge we find in this package, consider how our students understand and deal with these different types of knowledge, and then consider how student usage may have been affected by electronic media. In short, if our students approach these blocks with a different set of assumptions than we do, they may well understand what we have presented in a different way from what we thought we said. This could be so if students either see and use these blocks differently in their minds or they are not familiar with how our building blocks work. Although students most assuredly also held different understandings of many of these building blocks in the age of print, the thesis here is that the impact of electronic media has altered the perceptions that students now bring to the classroom with the result that the act of teaching must be reshaped to address today’s greater “cultural” divide between the world of print and the electronic world.

The effective history student must be able to deal with three different sets of these building blocks. The first building block is “concrete” fact. Facts have alternately vexed and attracted students and faculty. The proof that one possesses knowledge, especially as tested on Jeopardy or Trivial Pursuit or Who Wants to be a Millionaire?, the obsession with facts led at least one wag to call history the study of “one damn thing after another.” The need to promote basic factual knowledge as a prerequisite for understanding the past has facilitated the reliance of many on multiple choice exams. If our only challenge were to find ways to get students to learn facts, our task would be easier.

Possession of the facts, Jack Webb to the contrary, is not the goal of history. We have to find relationships among the facts, not just lay them out in chronological sequence. We use two kinds of concepts to order facts and evidence: 1) terms which are short hand for visible social processes such as capitalism, democracy, socialism, hierarchy, patriarchy and so on and which provede the context for events and 2) ideas or theories which represent different understandings of how the world works and which, therefore, help prioritize motivations and causes and so on. Although students need to know not just what terms mean but how they fit together, historians have long assumed that students understood at least some basic issues such as motivation or cause and effect without having to spell them out in detail.

A lecture, say, or a book, consists of all three types of information-facts, concepts, theories. Sometimes each is clearly present and sometimes one or another element is present by implication only. In any case each word or phrase was selected by the author/speaker to have what Olson calls illocutionary force, to have a specified role in developing the argument.13 The question for instructors is: How do students handle this stream of information when, blended together as a historically cohesive package, they encounter it in class? Can they recognize each component of the argument, know what it contributes to the presentation, and recombine the parts in a “historical” way? Or are all of these components simply an undifferentiated stream of data? Has the skill for deciphering print, for recognizing the illocutionary role of words, been lost or reduced or altered in the electronic age? Students need to be able to sort these things out as well as recognize how connectors such as “because” and “in contrast to” transform phrases into layers of meaning or sequences of causation. Without the ability to work with these building blocks, history is hard to comprehend or to present.

For the sake of argument I have arranged a number of possible impacts along a spectrum ranging from the least to the most possible impact from electronic media on historical analysis. As we work through this list, we move toward the need to have greater understandings of what history is and what electronic media may do. Please note that I do not intend these to be mutually exclusive positions and that elements of each and every one of them can be correct-or incorrect.

The argument for minimum impact by electronic media rests on the idea that media do not matter (they are regarded as “neutral” technologies) and that the significant difference between present and earlier times is simply program content. Because students have been exposed to different story lines than their teachers, this position holds, it is natural for students to fail to recognize many instructor analogies or references to events that seem fundamental to earlier generations. If faculty knew about Star Wars or Star Trek or Friends or whatever, then they could present historical ideas in ways more recognizable to their students. Conversely, students use television content to make better sense of historical events. Student use of a Nike advertisement slogan, “just do it,” to explain what Parisians were thinking just before they stormed the Bastille, is just one possible example from student exam answers. In short under this view the classroom difference is largely generational and based on differences in vocabulary and experience. If we can work out a common language with our students, all other issues would vanish. A related proposition is that students cannot understand written arguments because they have not done enough reading and not learned how to comprehend all of the components of an argument and arrange them in the way they presenter intended. This position is very close to much recent debate about the fate of history in the schools because it blames students (generation X) for watching too much television and not reading and studying diligently. The result is the call for students to spend more time on the important material while blaming faculty for injecting suspect stories (the wrong facts) into the minds of students. But it allows others to enjoy their PBS history presentations because of their better content.

But what if the differences are not just what a person is exposed to but rather that people truly experience the world differently through different media? This second case is not a radical proposition in the world of media theory-it simply requires that we understand and accept the idea that print is linear while the electronic media are nonlinear and that concepts of time and space are culturally constructed.14 [It should be injected, of course, that the real issue is learning how to understand and deal with the nonlinear because it is here and does not require our acceptance.] Electronic media make all sorts of sequences and juxtapositions not just possible but present. Space and time are both experienced differently from twenty or fifty or one hundred years ago.15 The world no longer exists, if it ever did, as a sequence because it can be both experienced and presented in numerous configurations. The television remote control enables its possessor to jump from program to program while the hyperlink gives the internet surfer numerous options of where to go next while the media themselves stitch together the nightly news with the conjunction, “now . . . this.”16 In a sense all television programming occurs in the present and all spaces are equidistant from each of us.17

This possibility has ramifications for the classroom. The issue is not longer that teacher and student have different vocabularies and have learned different stories. Instead it means that now the two see, understand and construct the world in different ways. If time and space and sequence and causation appear differently (or not at all) in the world of electronic media, then all of those building blocks which order historical analyses make no sense on hearing or reading and do not reappear in student papers. Does this also mean that much of the historians’ way of turning information into meaning is also lost?18 We can return to this later. Historians stress the awareness of sequence (if not on the memorization of dates). Students, unaccustomed to dealing with the world in this way, do not seem to be able to “see” things in that manner. They place less value on getting the events in exactly the “right” order on papers because they neither see nor value time/sequence in the same way that many historians do. They fall back on their own estimates of how events should have unfolded. On exams Louis XVI more and more frequently loses his head immediately after his return from Varennes because it seems logical.

Historians should not make too much of the differences between linear and nonlinear worlds because our work combines both. Research and study for a book or a lecture do not occur in the same sequence as their appearance in the finished product; the former activity is nonlinear while their presentation is linear. How many archival “discoveries” were serendipitous findings of something adjacent to the item we were actually looking for? The challenge for historians is to find ways to teach students to work in both worlds, not to eschew either world for full time residence in the other.

So far the analysis has focused on differences in understanding texts. What happens when the meaning of text itself is changed? This third case holds that the further we move into understandings of electronic media, the more we see changed approaches toward texts, what they mean, and how to use them. The electronic age is accompanied by the assumption that the number of texts has become infinite and their purpose is now as sources of bits of information or ideas to be used by others. The idea that there is significance related to the intentions of the author or the context in which the work was produced is lost. Why does this seem to be so?

For historians, knowledge on any particular subject has been regarded as finite. Part of the test of historical knowledge has traditionally been the ability of the historian to show how one’s research findings relate to all prior writings in the field. In effect historians built a discipline where historical texts could be grounded in time and space, validated, and then become the basis for authoritative interpretations of the past. Electronic information-and the experience of working with electronic information which more of our students will bring with them to the classroom-is very different.

Electronic texts are infinite. They can be sampled, not mastered. It is not possible to make an “authoritative” statement based on the idea that the writer has looked at “everything” in the field. After a person learned a field or topic, the task of “keeping current” was restricted to new articles and books. Electronic versions of texts produced in much earlier times can be placed on line years after they were originally written. If one left a field alone for a year before looking to see what had been added, that person would have to conduct a search identical to that carried out by someone approaching the topic for the first time. Search engines retrieve only a small portion of the relevant texts in a given search. Students bring to class the ability to search the internet and the recognition that locating everything or even everything “good” cannot be part of the grade.

Electronic texts are not grounded in space and time and are therefore immune to many of the traditional validation tests.19 Because these texts are not produced by journals or university presses, their authority cannot be assumed. One attempt to overcome the loss of context and authority is the effort to create “web rings” by which a group brought together by shared interest in a topic create a web site which contains a collection of “validated” sites on the topic and does not link to any site until it has been reviewed for its contribution to the topic at hand.20 This effort seeks to reduce the infinity of texts to a matter of quality control; even if it is successful in some instances for some groups of texts, the plethora of total available texts and student expectation that infinity is the norm will fill our classrooms with students not interested in “authority” in the tradition of attaching words to time, place or author.21

One classroom ramification of this is tied to student use of evidence. As a teacher I find one of my most difficult tasks is to get students to use examples or evidence as they build their essays. Why is it so difficult to get students to use evidence? Do they make judgements for their essays based on their initial impressions of the topic because they do not act as if they believe that there is more to a topic than they see at first glance? Remember that famous question: “What did President Nixon know and when did he know it?” This is a very “modern” (as opposed to postmodern) question that was designed to limit the range of possible explanations for a sequence of events and to help find the correct one. How do we get our students to work within those same frameworks? The historian’s requirement for footnotes is based on the idea that a serious scholar can work through another scholar’s argument in the same manner as the author intended. This is a hard sell for students who know that two searches on the internet usually do not wind up at the same point. Furthermore there are not a lot of examples of footnoting outside history class. Television shows use talking heads and lists of advisors in their credits-they do not attach specific bits of evidence to particular assertions.

It is important here to mention again the idea of a recapitulative approach to learning.22 If the litmus test for historians is to develop an interpretation which meshes with what we know about an issue from its sources and interpreters, then the recapitulative approach is tied to the effort to form one’s own reactions or mental associations with a particular set of events without regard for what others have said and without a full review of the evidence. This approach will be further reinforced by some of the possibilities of hypertext and interactive media. Janet H. Murray argues that as the merger of media systems proceeds, it will become more an more possible for individuals to intervene into television programs to take control of individual characters and to rework programs over and over with the goal of trying out alternative plot twists.23

The attractions of reworking plots according to highly personal criteria is already with us. One of my students brought me a book of what he identified as “alternative’ history.24 I thought of counterfactual history as sometimes practiced or railed against within the profession—the kind of history that asks “what if Longstreet had showed up at Gettysburg or what if D-Day had failed in 1944 or what if the US did not drop the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? The gist of the student’s book was a story of World War II where, in the midst of the conflict, an alien invasion necessitated Roosevelt and Churchill and Hitler to bury or overcome their difference in order to work together to defeat the space invaders. Certainly these were not alternatives I had thought about. As contrary as this seems to historical analysis, it is consistent with views of knowledge in cyberspace, some aspects of postmodern theory and some current cultural trends in this country. This leads us to resonance.

Resonance. While students do not spend a lot of time contemplating differing meanings of text, they do match up classroom content and practice with their understandings of the world, the world of electronic media (which is also our world). We are all drinking the same water and breathing the same air. In just a couple of examples we can see that their approaches are not that different from the rest of society or from historians themselves.

Where historians see students who are reluctant to read, to work with texts, to consider multiple explanations in the hope that the teacher will relent, cut to the chase and reveal the bottom line, some of the friends of generation X (and subsequent generations) see deep distrust of and deep disregard toward texts, defined as entities which control or at least shape the thinking of their readers. The refusal to deal with linear texts linearly is seen as a moment of liberation.25 Many teachers seek ways to get students to overcome their reluctance to play our game. On the other hand, in a number of recent studies some historians have directed their own disdain toward the nation-state and identified the need to free history from the clutches of the nation-state or from the elites in control of that government. While some of this suspicion is a residue of the Vietnam era, this distrust is also a product of deconstructionism. Many of us have been taught to find underlying motive and the exercise of power in the patriotic stories of the nation. Furthermore many recent analysts have argued that the nation-state is losing is appeal as it is simultaneously undermined and overwhelmed by the new possibilities of electronic media. These media make it possible for individuals to locate and interact with groups smaller and emotionally more rewarding than the state while multinational corporations, their reach facilitated by electronic media are outflanking if not overpowering many nations.26

Technologies, including media, can facilitate the wider attainment of scarce cultural values. Radical individualism-acting as if the rest of society does not exist-or exists to play narrowly defined roles in one’s life-has been a long standing dream of many, though by no means everyone, in the United States. Romanticising the life of the cowboy while overlooking the reality of that life, purchasing a sport utility vehicle so one won’t have to stay between the lines except at the gas station are only two examples of this sense of escape from society. Cyberspace-or at least its advertisers-has fanned the flame of this desire to live unobligated to others. Is history an impingement on this ideal? One analyst states that “Cyberspace is the place where conscious dreaming meets subconscious dreaming. . . .”27 Many of my online students praise the internet for its convenience, for its presumed ability to take much of the drudgery out of life and school. Said one, “I don’t have to go to the library and climb all those stairs to research a paper. Its just click-click-click and in ten minutes I have all I need.” For many of my students doing term papers this fall, if a source is not available on the internet, it doesn’t exist.

These two general examples suggest that much of the behavior of our students is culturally sanctioned. Their reactions to history, a discipline requiring the study of texts and the recognition that the past may be a force in their lives, parallel other trends in society. If our students want to ignore the past and make themselves the measure of all they survey, they are not alone. Again, the issues we face in the classroom are societal and cultural, not generational. But this isn’t the end of the story. Remember Rosenzweig and Thelen.28 Americans report lots of enjoyable, meaningful encounters with the past-they just haven’t had many of them in history class. Our task as instructors is to figure out the meaning of the historical in the electronic world and find out how to connect with it and to make our courses historical in ways we can also regard as valid.

What Should We Do?

When the focus on electronic media is restricted to technique, instructors find themselves worrying about how to teach students to write hypertext or master other techniques. This work should be done collegewide in order to let faculty address concerns central to their academic disciplines. For historians these broader issues include introducing students to unfamiliar, past worlds, teaching them how to study them historically, and how to develop and present their understandings in coherent ways. This is where we should spend our time. Unfortunately this list is only suggestive; I do not have a guaranteed collection of approaches because we are very early in the process of figuring out what is going on and how to deal with it.

  1. Teach the issue of media shift including theories of the impact of different media. Modern European history (including the AP version) currently spans the world from Gutenberg to the gigabyte. Discuss media issues related to both eras. Read some of the materials on the impact of the press but do not restrict yourself to its role in the Reformation. Show how printing enabled writers to reach wider audiences, transformed listeners into readers, transferred power to different groups of people, made the scientific revolution possible, promoted linear thought and self-reflection. Then, at the start of the course, point out how the millennium transition just past may represent a parallel shift of equal importance and explain some of the these possibilities as well. If elements of modern history flow from the development of moveable type, students are drawn into some of the parallel issues of their own world.
  2. Use a side stage approach.29 Get away from lecture-as the presentation of the finished product of historical study-to a narrative of how you went about your business. Transform your whole course from the presentation of the finished products of historical study into consideration of the processes of analysis by, in effect, having students work with your mental rough drafts and the intermediate thoughts you considered on the way to your final conclusions. Set aside time for students to consider how they know what they know.
  3. Teach as if your subject is a foreign culture even if it is recent US (or not a foreign culture to you). How would you introduce students to the world of ancient China? Take some of the same considerations in your history courses.
  4. Require students to write and write and write. And critique their work in terms of the characteristics of effective historical argumentation, not just its correctness or the value of its ultimate insights.
  5. Focus on the role of questioning in historical study. Don’t historians believe it is better to have unanswered questions than to have unquestioned answers?

The quick answer to the need for resonance is to find topics that interest students and approaches to knowledge they understand. This can be tricky because our final goal should be to add historical understanding to their knowledge of the world, not to simply debunk a few national myths in a way that teaches them that their understanding of the world was complete and that history has nothing to add to the mental arsenal.

Use the powers of the computer and hypertext to juxtapose events and cultures, and to work backwards and forwards in time. In this way we can show the richness and diversity of the past and help defeat the widely held student notion that what they see in their first glance at a topic is all there is to that topic.

These solutions are suggestions only. I am certain that the editors of the many teaching journals and columns would like to hear from you about ideas for effectively addressing the impact of electronic media on historical understanding. I think James O’Donnell is correct. We need to try to imagine “our way forward to the people that we, or our children, may become.”30 If we don’t, we may be marginalized in this new century and will thereby deprive our students and society from a fuller connection with the past and the meanings it can add to our world.

Appendix I
Why is discussion of the relationship between the issue of the impact of electronic media on the classroom either absent or trivial?
  1. To undertake this task we have to “get right” with Generation X. The now fading debates about Generation X delayed a serious assessment of the impact of electronic media. By defining these students as deficient in some manner—upbringing, television, broken families, slacker behavior—many critics chose not to look closely at the environment in which this generation grew up.31) Theirs was the first generation immersed in a world of pervasive cable television, TV remote controls, technologically sophisticated video games, MTV, twenty-four hour sports, and the internet with its numerous sites, chat rooms, MUDs and MOOs. But much of our reaction was largely to tell students to shape up, get focused—because I think we saw a lot of this stuff simply as obstacles to be ignored, not as outward signs of a new way of looking at the world. In short the focus on the behavioral foibles of Gen X forestalled systematic analysis of the role of electronic media.32 Although Gen-Xers may well possess traits that will become more prevalent as society moves into a global culture that is even more electronically mediated than the present world, many teachers have groaned and waited for better students instead of investigating the impacts of new media more fully. Although I am not ready to jump on a skateboard, l do think we have to consider seriously what our students bring to the classroom because we can’t wait for their baggage to change.In fact the supporters of Gen X suggest that we need to take this generation seriously. Many of you remember The Greening of America by Reich, a book which said American culture was moving into Consciousness III, a new condition that would solve many American problems in 1970.33 [I leave unmentioned any assessment of the accuracy of his analysis.] Today’s equivalent book is Playing the Future How Kids’ Culture can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos by Douglas Rushkoff (NY, 1996). His is the most sweeping statement of the widely asserted truism that in the digital age we learn from our children. This truism means much more than the idea that they can program a VCR not to go “12:00. . . 12:00. . . 12:00. . . 12:00.” Our students are presumably the ones who are adept with the new media and their related ways of meaning-making; in this account older Americans are the ones stuck in the mud of the print age. Does the fact that our students move (flit?) from topic to topic without enough time to “notice” what is on a web page prove that they have ADD or is our annoyance proof that we haven’t developed the skills needed to process information quickly on the road to finding what we need at the moment. Do our students not understand basic concepts? Ridicule governments? Whatever? Are their attitudes and snap judgements a style without thought or are they wired in to the new world of media and merely reflecting the judgements of the new age. Rushkoff writes: “By the time the original concept—be it Nazism, Nike or the nation-state—is cycled through the machine [of media culture], it has either been bracketed into laughable obscurity or disseminated globally.” (265) Absence of thinking or new way of thinking? But nobody seems to be out there analyzing what a world shaped by the new media will work or what the contents of the education of the future should contain.
  2. We need to put the media in the background to avoid the “invitation” we might feel to “vent” on the issue of the impact of media. I think we would do well to avoid spending much time on this psychologically rewarding, culturally sanctioned activity. American culture is torn between two diametrically opposed views on technology and media. On the one hand many hold to technological enthusiasm and an accompanying belief that technology is neutral; on the other hand, many fear that technologies are more powerful than people and quickly get out of control. This view, captured under the heading of “technological determinism,” holds that that a new technology is almost like a hypodermic injection which moves swiftly to permeate an entire culture and to alter it in certain predictable and unopposable ways. I think, instead, we should start from the nature of historical study and work outward toward the factors that seem to impede the effective study and teaching of history by our students.
  3. We need to realize that public perceptions of history, coupled with a narrowly focused critique of electronic media, lead general discussions of history and media up a blind alley. For most Americans the most basic set of components in historical study is “concrete” fact including events, actions, treaties, laws, people and so on. Disputes over the importance of different facts have been at the center of most of the public debates about curricula and testing. Recall the discussions of recent years. E. D. Hirsch wrote Cultural Literacy, a compilation of lists of terms for many different topics which collectively represented what “every educated person should know”. Much of the fight around the National History Standards revolved around the issue of who was on that list and who had been left off—as if history had an “A” list and a “B” list. Some of the criticisms, for example, paired the presence of Harriet Tubman with the absence of Thomas Edison, and descried the number of references to the Alger Hiss hearings. Critics of this proposed set of standards argued that historians were putting emphasis on the wrong things, including the wrong people. Although many historians did not feel comfortable with this reduction of historical knowledge to tidbits suitable for Jeopardy contestants, we have to admit to our own enjoyment of student misstatements such as those appearing on the internet, you know, the review of history constructed entirely of student misstatements.

The primary villain for the lack of basic historical knowledge is frequently identified as television—either as a source of trash knowledge or as the occupier of time that could have been profitably directed toward study. This is a blind alley for at least two reasons. First, this is an easy out, a simple villain, which does not reflect the complexity of media impact. It reflects the fact that historians have not done a good job of communicating to students or the public the reasons why the reduction of historical study to a list of preferred data is bad history (or not even history at all). While we may have some debates over what to put on the list, we generally know that this is a false argument and does not get to the core of historical understanding. We don’t teach auto repair by having students memorize the parts list—the key is what you can do with the knowledge. Second, this approach addresses only the content of television or the internet. If we allow the debate to turn solely on this issue, we have already lost the debate. Not only have we adopted a bad definition of history, we have limited our analysis of electronic media to distinguishing between good and bad content without addressing those impacts of a medium that are inherent in the medium rather than its content. [This doesn’t mean we should abolish TV but it does mean we have to look more deeply to into the impacts to decide what to do.]


  1. James J. O’Donnell, Avatars of the Word From Papyrus to Cyberspace (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1998), 10. []
  2. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York, 1998). For example, “[Survey respondents] feel connected to the past in museums because authentic artifacts seem to transport them straight back to the times when history was being made. They feel unconnected to the past in history classrooms because they don’t recognize themselves in the version of the past presented there. When asked to describe studying history in school, they most often used the words dull and irrelevant.” (p. 12; italics in original []
  3. Walter J. Ong, Orality and Literacy The Technologizing of the Word (London, 1982), 175-177. Ong’s arguments provide important background for this paper. He argues for understanding communication as an intersubjective activity and against the idea that communication comes down a media pipeline from sender to receiver. In other words, he argues against the position taken by frustrated teachers that they wish they could drill a hole in a student’s head and just pour in the knowledge. []
  4. For the application of this “hypodermic” model to electronic media, see David Morley and Kevin Robins, Spaces of Identity Global Media, Electronic Landscapes and Cultural Boundaries (London, 1995), 126-127. Philosophical analysis of how a new technology redefines a situation is Albert Borgmann’s distinction between a “thing” and a “device” in Technology and the Character of Contemporary Life (Chicago, 1984), Chapter 9, “The Device Paradigm.” See also the discussion of “Heidegger’s Hammer” in Don Ihde, Technology and the Lifeworld From Garden to Earth (Bloomington, Indiana, 1990), 31-34. []
  5. “We are coming to understand that what we so valued as an attention span is something entirely different from what we thought. As practiced, an attention span is not a power of concentration or self-discipline in the least, but rather a measure of a viewer’s susceptibility to the hypnotic affects of linear programming. . . . The child of the remote control may indeed have a ‘shorter’ attention span as defined by the behavioral psychologist of our prechaotic culture’s academic institutions (which are themselves dedicated to little more than preserving their own historical stature). But this same child also has a much broader attention range. The skill to be valued in the twenty-first century is not length of attention span but the ability to multitask-to do many things at once, well.” Douglas Rushkoff, Playing the Future How Kids’ Culture Can Teach Us to Thrive in an Age of Chaos (New York, 1996), 49-50 (emphasis in the original). []
  6. The phrase was used in a column on Monica Lewinsky by New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd [which I did not save because I did not know I would someday want to cite it]. []
  7. A sweeping analysis of the ways the formation of national narrative was achieved by suppressing information about the losses sustained by numerous groups is Prasenjit Duara, Rescuing History from the Nation Questioning Narratives of Modern China (Chicago, 1995). The recovery of these voices (the revoicing of these peoples?) is part of the broader contemporary trend toward challenging the national stories sanctioned by the state. Consider this trend in tandem with the work of Robert Morley and Kevin Robins. They argue that the proliferation of broadcast channels through cable and satellite television is likely to move us towards a more fragmented social world than that of traditional national broadcast television. These new forms of communication may in fact play a significant part in deconstructing national cultures, and the interactive and ‘rescheduling’ potentialities of video and other new communications technologies may well disrupt assumptions of any ‘necessary simultaneity’ of social experience.” 68 They also note that electronic media make possible richer forms of identity than that provided by the nation state. 24 []
  8. The term “recapitulative style” is from Douglas Rushkoff’s analysis. The term defines “distanced participation that allows them [kids] to turn what used to be an isolating experience [television viewing] into an expression of community. They don’t want to get drawn into the drama and don’t seek or offer moral statements: “The television becomes a hearth, casting light on a room filled with participants.” 225 “They must stay alert and disengaged, constantly aware of the inability of moral platitudes-the metaphorical existence portrayed on stage-to answer complex human dilemmas.” 224 Why is recapitulation necessarily more advanced or better than literal or metaphorical understandings of the world? Because, according to Rushkoff, it is capable of representing our chaotic cultural experience in a manner that allows us to relate to it. It gives us an insight into how nature works, and motivates us to become more fully conscious and self-determining. There are implications here for the traditional classroom or at least for the expectations which students bring to this setting. Unlike literal models, recapitulation doesn’t demand that people memorize facts and commands, especially when there are too many to keep track of. Unlike metaphor, recapitulation doesn’t demand a definite but potentially dangerous conclusion. 228 “For this younger generation, discontinuous media is not the exception it is the rule. As a result they have adopted a social philosophy very different from their predecessors. They do not work to recombine and reduce the seemingly endless stream of media bits into coherent, unified pictures, and they no longer believe in hard-and-fast answers to the world’s problems. ” 44 This preferred activity of many students may be close to what Walter Ong calls “secondary orality” which he sees as informed by the preexisting literate culture. He reports that the phenomenon is largely unstudied. 171. []
  9. See Manuel Castells, The Information Age: Economy, Society and Culture, Volume II, The Power of Identity (Malden, Massachusetts, 1997). Also Morley and Robins; Duara. []
  10. The fullest analysis of this phenomenon is Sherry Turkle, Life on the Screen Identity in the Age of the Internet (New York, 1995). “The Internet has become a significant social laboratory for experimenting with the constructions and reconstructions of self that characterize postmodern life. In its virtual reality, we self-fashion and self-create. What kinds of personae do we make? What relation do these have to what we have traditionally thought of as the whole person? Are they experienced as an expanded self or as separate from the self? Do our real-life selves learn lessons from our virtual personae? Are these virtual personae fragments of a coherent real-life personality? How do they communicate with one another? Why are we doing this? Is this a shallow game, a giant waste of time? Is it an expression of an identity crisis of the sort we traditionally associate with adolescence? Or are we watching the slow emergence of a new, more multiple style of thinking about the mind?” 180 []
  11. According to many analysts cultures are no longer demarcated in time and space. See, for example, Eric Wolf: ‘the concept of a fixed, unitary and bounded culture must give way to a sense of fluidity and permeability of cultural sets.’ Europe and the People without History, (Berkeley, California, 1982) 387 (cited in Morley and Robins, 87) See also Jonathan Boyarin (ed.), Remapping Memory The Politics of TimeSpace (Minneapolis, 1994) who argues that today’s traditional ideas of space and time have been promoted to enhance the position of the nation-state. “I further suggest that our reified notions of objective and separate time and space are peculiarly linked to the modern identification of a nation with a sharply bounded, continuously occupied space controlled by a single sovereign state, comprising a set of autonomous yet essentially identical individuals.” 2 []
  12. The discussion in this section follows David Olson, The World on Paper The Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Writing and Reading (Cambridge, England, 1994), Chapter 11, especially 252-256. []
  13. Olson, 112-114. []
  14. See O’Donnell, 133-143, for one example of what accepting nonlinearity will mean for history and the humanities; see Carol J. Greenhouse, A Moment’s Notice Time Politics Across Cultures (Ithaca, 1996) for a cross-cultural discussion of concepts of time. []
  15. The experience of a world of increasing speed and shrinking size has been a staple of the past two hundred years. See, for example, Stephen Kern, The Culture of Time and Space 1880-1918 (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1983). []
  16. Neil Postman emphasizes the use of “now. . . this” as a conjunction in Amusing Ourselves to Death Public Discourse in the Age of Show Business (New York, 1985), 99-113. []
  17. The impact of the ability to watch the “millenium” arrive twenty-four times on television may well be one day regarded as significant as the earlier moment when people saw the earth from space as a single globe for the first time. []
  18. “Yet it may well be the case that the labyrinth of cyberspace is about the loss of authority and not meaning.” Ron Burnett, “A Torn Page, Ghosts on the Computer Screen, Words, Images, Labyrinths: Exploring the Frontiers of Cyberspace” in George E. Marcus, ed., Connected Engagements with Media, Late Editions, vol. 3 (Chicago, 1996), 69. []
  19. “Hyperreality . . . is a site of collapse or implosion where referential or ‘grounded’ utterance becomes indistinguishable from the self-referential and the imaginary.” Stuart Moulthrop, “You say You Want a Revolution? Hypertext and the Laws of Media, Postmodern Culture I, no. 3, 23 quoted in Ron Burnett, 73. []
  20. “Quality, Imprimaturs, and Rings,” unsigned editorial in Journal of the Association for History and Computing, Vol. II, Number 2, August, 1999. Online journal available at Jeffrey Barlow and Phillip Huhta, “A Peer-Reviewed Web Ring for Students and Teachers of History,” Journal of the Association for History and Computing, Volume II, Number 3, November, 1999. Online journal available at: []
  21. “The labyrinth of cyberspace is more malleable. The information within its boundaries is never fixed and those who visit can change its form by altering the flow of data or by adding their own information to its memory banks. In other words, information loses its privileged status and becomes less identified with its author.” Burnett, 70. []
  22. See footnote 8. []
  23. Hamlet on the Holodeck The Future of Narrative in Cyberspace (New York, 1997). []
  24. I have always been sorry that I did not jot down the bibliographic information for this work. I will when and if I see him next semester. []
  25. Rushkoff []
  26. Morley and Robins, Duara, Greenhouse, Kaplan and others. []
  27. Burnett, 84. []
  28. See footnote 2. []
  29. I made an earlier attempt to address these issues and suggest suitable teaching techniques in “Teaching History in a-Historical Times: A Side Stage Approach,” Teaching History A Journal of Methods, XXI (Fall, 1996), 59-67. The computer and the internet were not analyzed in any way in that essay. []
  30. O’Donnell, 10. []
  31. A powerful example of the indictments of this group of students is Peter Sacks, Generation X Goes to College (Chicago, 1996) which is subtitled An Eye-Opening Account of Teaching in Postmodern America. Consider his position on the impact of television: “Colorful, mesmerizing images and sounds flash and go; at a child’s whim Big Bird metamorphoses into Mr. Brady, who in turn is transformed into an MTV sex object. The spectacle that Generation X was born watching is never boring—the hand-held remote guarantees that much …. Their desire to be entertained [in the classroom] seemed at times a low but constant background buzz, providing the real cultural context that shaped virtually everything that went onin the classroom.” (143 []
  32. A sympathetic account that identifies pressures from society at large for the problems experienced by Generation X can be found in a special section of Utne Reader (July/August, 1994) entitled “Today’s Teens: Dissed, Mythed and Totally Pissed A Generation and a Nation at Risk.” Two classic analyses of this cohort of students are Neil Howe and Bill Strauss, 13th Gen Abort, Retry, Ignore, Fail? (New York, 1993) by two demographers and Douglas Coupland’s novel, GenerationX Tales for an Accelerated Culture (New York, 1991). Both are printed and organized in a style reminiscent of computer writing and communication. The voice of Generation X is captured in a group of essays, Eric Liu, ed., Next Young American Writers on the New Generation (New York, 1994). []
  33. Charles A. Reich, The Greening of America (New York, 1970) and also Philip Nobile, ed., The Con III Controversy: The Critics Look at The Greening of America (New York, 1971). []