‘Long-famous glories, immemorial shames’

‘Mama, what colour paper should I use to draw The World War?’


‘I’m going to use purple because of the darkness and the gas.’

And I’m thinking, ‘who told her about the gas? She might have a nightmare.’ Tiny bits of information leave powerful and lasting impressions in children’s minds: the few facts they learn at school might become all they know about a subject. How do teachers find their historical information and where do they send children to find out about the past? There can’t be many adults whose hands do not itch for a smartphone as soon as they want to know something.

Wikipedia is the first website that Google offers a truth-seeker who types in ‘World War Two’. It is common to send older children than my daughter off to research online, which in effect means ‘read Wikipedia’. Less conscientious students just print out the Wikipedia page and hand that in.

There are obvious problems with our reliance on Google, and Wikipedia, for historical knowledge. I will consider two…

The first problem is, you need knowledge before you search – to both select information and to understand it. Daisy Christodolou convincingly argues that “you can only rely on being able to look something up when you know quite a bit about it to begin with,” (Seven Myths About Education, 2014.) She explains that you can neither select appropriate sources, nor make sense of the vocabulary or content, without substantial prior knowledge.

I noticed how my GCSE English students struggled with researching history online when I encouraged them to include ‘context’ in exam answers. The exam requires students, “show understanding of the relationships between texts and the contexts in which they were written” (AQA, 2018); diligent students would do their best to supplement the little I had time to convey in class by reading online. But the poor things rarely could say much that was sensible based purely on lone efforts. They mixed up writers of fiction with characters; comical misinterpretations were easily drawn from complex general statements: one student desperately wrote in an exam essay on ‘Of Mice and Men’ – “Curley didn’t like his wife, he didn’t even give her a name”. This statement sounds like a confused paraphrase of text on the first website that comes up when you search ‘women Of Mice and Men’ on Google, which describes women’s role in 1930’s America vaguely and sentimentally – “women are completely disenfranchised: of dreams, of friends, of family, of community, even of name.” (E-notes.)

The second problem is that we don’t always know whose point of view we are reading online. Everybody knows that history is written by the winners –  that used to be true anyway, in the bygone age of books, when the winners were the ones with publishers. But at least the winners announced their bias by the very fact of their identity. In my father’s Encyclopedia Britannica from 1929, The British Empire is described as possessing “one faith…in the field of political and social ideals.” A contemporary Indian might have disagreed, but the broad reasons for that disagreement would have been clear to both sides.

Internet historians don’t necessarily announce their bias. When I enter the terms ‘British Empire’ into Google the third article suggested by the algorithm comes from ‘The New World Encyclopedia’, which makes the astounding claim, “The underlying goal of the encyclopedia is to promote knowledge that leads to human happiness, well-being, world peace” (NWE, 2018). By looking up the founder – Sun Myung Moon – elsewhere I am able to discover that (according to the New York Times obituary) he “…founded numerous innocuously named civic organizations. To his critics, he pursued those activities mainly to lend legitimacy to his movement, known as the Unification Church… In 2004…he had himself crowned “humanity’s savior” in front of astonished members of Congress at a Capitol Hill luncheon.” (NYT, Sep. 2012.) A teenager would probably not have uncovered this encyclopedia’s eccentric bias. There are many influential people who bury their influence far more deeply than Mr Moon did.

Historians on the internet are not necessarily individual writers. In the case of Wikipedia, we defer to an amalgamation of anonymous voices. Wikipedia relies on the idea that consensus is the best way to truth on any subject. Jaron Lanier is “one of the most respected voices in tech, a visionary who helped shape our digital culture.” (Observer, 2013.) Lanier has written about the danger, not of Wikipedia itself, but of the way it is regarded. Lanier argues, in an essay from 2006, that the idea that collective opinion should be held in great esteem, has been dangerous historically and is just as dangerous now it is being reintroduced by technologists:

“…the problem is in the way the Wikipedia has come to be regarded and used; how it’s been elevated to such importance so quickly. And that is part of the larger pattern of the appeal of a new online collectivism that is nothing less than a resurgence of the idea that the collective is all-wise, that it is desirable to have influence concentrated in a bottleneck that can channel the collective with the most verity and force. This is different from representative democracy, or meritocracy. This idea has had dreadful consequences when thrust upon us from the extreme Right or the extreme Left in various historical periods.” (DIGITAL MAOISM: The Hazards of the New Online Collectivism, 2006)

He is asking us to make a link between certainty of crowds on Wikipedia and the certainty of Mao’s Red Guards, the certainty of crowds applauding Hitler in the 1930’s.

Lanier’s essay is worth a read – especially for parents and teachers concerned about their children’s reliance on Wiki-truth. He looks at the value of the ‘hive-mind’ as well as its limitations; he suggests ways that the dangerous aspects of collectivism can be controlled by democratic processes, like those used in scientific research. Lanier’s concluding thought is that we should always remember the value of individual voice for advancing knowledge – “always cherish individuals first.”

When studying – and teaching children about – wars of the past, we need to be conscious of whose point of view we are reading. Perhaps more than in any other subject, the the truth about a war will depend on who you ask. This is why poetry of World War One remains one of the most common and powerful ways to approach the subject. Those who summarise what all the slaughter meant weren’t there; those who were there didn’t pretend to understand it.

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