Sam Wineburg, Ph.D., is the Margaret Jacks Professor of Education, History and American Studies at the Stanford Graduate School of Education, Wineburg, 60, has written and lectured widely on the psychology of learning, history and education. He also established the Stanford History Education Group, whose free online curriculum in social studies has been downloaded 5 million times. His latest book, “Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone),” will be released by the University of Chicago Press in September.
J.: In recent years, you’ve talked a lot about a modern-day conundrum: The more information we have at our fingertips, the less discernment most of us have in distinguishing between what’s real and reliable from what’s bogus and potentially damaging to democratic institutions and society.
Sam Wineburg: Technological change has been so rapid that human technologies have not caught up. Many ordinary people are so confused about what to believe that they don’t believe anything. That makes society malleable to fascist tendencies. In other cases, smart people think that they can outsmart the web because they are good readers with fancy degrees. As the head fact-checker of a major publication once told me, “The enemy of fact-checking is hubris.” The quality of the information we consume is as important to our civic health as clean air and water are to our public health.
So what can we do remedy this situation?
We have to redouble our commitment to the teaching of civics. We’ve been blinded by the allure of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) subjects and the belief that STEM will save us. We have to rededicate ourselves to a commitment to accuracy and a respect for facts. And, we have to understand that our eyes sometimes deceive us. When we open up a website, we should spend two or three minutes engaged in lateral reading, opening up multiple tabs to understand what information neighborhood we have landed in and investigating who is behind the information we’re consuming.
Before you embarked on a life in academia, you worked as a public school teacher?
I did. I taught reading in Richmond, but I was also moonlighting as a Hebrew school teacher, since I was fluent in Hebrew by then. Temple Sinai in Oakland was my primary source of employment.
Your love of history, civics and all things social studies started when you were 8 or 9, the same time that you developed a passion for all things Jewish. During your 30 years in higher education you have taught at the University of Haifa and served on the academic advisory boards of the Mandel Foundation and the American Hebrew Academy. Would you share some of your personal history?
I had a Reform Jewish upbringing in Utica, New York. My father grew up Orthodox, but he rebelled against it. In 1967, at the age of 49, around the time of the Six-Day War in Israel, my father started me on an Israeli stamp collection. He died a year later at 50. I was 9 or 10 at the time. A year or two earlier, I discovered in our house a book about Adolf Eichmann. I have been fascinated by history since.
Did that love of Jewish learning carry over to your undergraduate years and early years in your career as a teacher?
I started college at Brown, where I took a course with the Jewish studies scholar Jacob Neusner, who told me, “You will have to leave Brown to become Jewishly educated.” So I left Brown and spent a year and a half in Israel on a number of kibbutzes, and I studied Hebrew relentlessly. I met my future wife, Susan Monas, a retired psychotherapist, who was working on one of the kibbutzes.
When I came back to the United States, I transferred to UC Berkeley, established California residency and supported myself as a short-order cook at the Santa Fe Bar and Grill. But I was soon back in Israel during my junior year abroad. I ended up at the Pardes Institute of Jewish Studies. Coincidentally, the eldest of my and Susan’s three children, Shoshana, also studied there some years ago. I believe we are one of the few father-daughter pairs to have gone through the program.
And then you came back to Berkeley your senior year?
I finished up my undergraduate program with a major in the history of religion, and I wrote an honors thesis on the Sefer Hasidim, which was an examination of Jews who lived in Germany after the First Crusade. Some of these Jews flirted with the concept of celibacy.