Monday, October 13, 2014

Sam Wineburg Watch - A New Ongoing Feature

Hi faithful readers.  We here at Looking Out From the Panopticon are pleased to announce a new feature:  Sam Wineburg Watch.  In this feature, we will keep tabs on Wineburg and his Stanford History Education Group which is rapidly becoming one of the most influential places for teachers to find lesson plans and information about how to teach history.  But there's a problem with Wineburg and SHEG.  They apparently don't prioritize the last 30 years of historiography.  They fetishize documents at the expense of other types of sources and that means they also prioritize the rich and powerful, the white and male, at the expense of others. 

Today was a good example of that.  Wineburg tweeted out a link to this article he wrote in 2005 when Berkeley stopped celebrating Columbus Day and started celebrating Indigenous People's Day.  In the article, he inform us that Columbus' legacy doesn't really matter because what Columbus Day is really about is getting urban Catholic votes for Benjamin Harrison and the Republican Party.  By coming up with a Catholic hero and nationalizing him as a figure of importance, Harrison hoped to persuade new immigrants to become Republicans. 

OK, so far so good.  But that's where Wineburg stops.  Missing from this analysis is the larger question of how immigrants that weren't white (he uses the term "swarthy") became white and the answer isn't just about politics.  As many, many studies have shown whiteness is predicated on differentiating the European from the "other" typically Native Americans (as in King Phillip's War) or African Americans (as in the Jacksonian creation of universal white male suffrage and simultaneous disenfranchisement of African Americans). 

Thus by picking someone closely associated with genocide, Harrison located Italian immigrants into the long tradition of killing Indians to become white.  That's an important part of the story and Wineburg, as is typical for him, totally misses the point.  He assures us that Columbus Day is just about politics and urban voting in the 1890s and a celebration of immigrants becoming American.  He somehow neglects to mention that the proclamation came a mere two years after the Wounded Knee massacre that ended the Plains Wars once and for all.  Visions of European Conquest and as Richard Drinnon put it the sub-title of an early book on the topic, "The Metaphysics of Indian Hating and Empire Building." 

So in other words, Columbus Day is all about the pattern that Columbus started.  And it is time to change the name.

In related news, if anybody hasn't seen Erik Loomis' #GenocideDay tweets, they really are worth a read.   


  1. I've generally liked the structure of his assignment, and have found that by modifying them to my liking, they serve as pretty good entry points to analyzing particular events. However, I've been underwhelmed by the sourcing on the few European history-related ones that he has.

    In his "Historical Assessment of Thinking" (HATs) about the death of Louis XIV (which seems now to have been removed from the site, but which I downloaded and added to my Google Drive, muahahahah!!!:, SHEG attributes the print to between 1890-1920, but has cropped the image to omit the original caption and attribution.

    A quick search for the title of the print, "Mort de Louis XVI, le 21 janvier 1793 Place de la Concorde" yields this hit from the Library of Congress:

    On this page, you can see to whole image, with the caption and the fact that in the lower right-hand corner, the print notes that it originated as an extract from the French Revolutionary newspaper, _Révolutions de Paris_, which ran from 1789 to 1794:

    This tiny bit of sleuthing revealed that the central question that the HAT wants you to grapple with, which is essentially "does this image from over 100 years after the event it depicts shed light on the event itself," is a total red herring. The image is a reproduction of an original that ran in a revolutionary newspaper (and important part of the attribution that's missing, as the SHEG lesson plan merely says, "Author Unknown") that published it the *same week* as the execution, not 100+ years later.

    For the whole image and its original caption, see here:

    Thankfully Dartmouth digitized this collection, thereby making the fact-checking and more substantive sourcing quite easy. Unsurprisingly, as I discovered the context about this newspaper, its short run (and elimination after the Jacobin loss of power), and the immediacy with which it published the image actually makes the analysis of this image much richer.

    I had tried last year to post a more nicely worded version of this critique on the SHEG webpage last year in the hopes that they'd make the corrections to the image and empower students to engage in a more nuanced interpretation of the source, but if they recognized the shoddiness of this HAT it appears that they just took it down.

    Dave, you can consider this message part of your on-going #WineburgWatch project and re-blog if you'd like.

  2. Dave, reading over your post and nkogan's comment, it seems that a root issue of Wineburg's vision of history is that it's essentially a modern history approach rather than that of a medievalist, early modernist, or pre-Columbian or colonial North Americanist. His reference point appears to be rooted solidly in the late 19th/early 20th century, so he misses a great deal of the visual and archival nuances that scholars trained like you, me, and nkogan pick up easily.

    In sum, it seems like he needs someone with a longer grasp of the longue duree than he possesses to review and contribute to his website.

  3. FYI, in case you missed it: