On Studying History & Fake News

On Studying History & Fake News

I’m not one of those people bothered by what is currently referred to as “fake news.” I am not currently wringing my hands wondering what kind of a world my children will inherit and how they will ever make sense of it. That is because I love history and am deeply passionate about it.

Allow me to explain.

History tells us that from the beginning of time, people have told lies. This is nothing new.

The earliest written history is a battlefield in itself – what with Egyptians consistently trying to remove names of underappreciated pharaohs from the lineage to obliterate their names and Gilgamesh, king of Uruk, ordering a larger than life epic poem be written about himself to win over his subjects.

Fine, but these were not journalists, you say. Well, not in the sense of reporting to newspapers that got delivered to you which you read over coffee, but they did have the job of delivering important news by word of mouth, as was more common those days. It was only the influential people of the world had their own “birds” and spies to keep an eye out. It’s possible that’s how they got influential. So consider if you would feel trust the news when it came from the likes of Lord Varys. (Sorry for the Game of Thrones reference, but it makes my point perfectly.)

And this is just the beginning of written history.

Why is today considered any different? Do we think we have somehow arrived at the point where people reporting the news have become completely trustworthy?

What I Am Not Saying

Now look, I’m not arguing for lying. I’m certainly not saying that you should make stuff up, that it’s somehow good for your neighbor. Of course you shouldn’t.

I’m just arguing for some perspective.

History looks different when one is caught up in it. And people haven’t changed. This is the nature of the creature we are dealing with.

Was there ever a time that we could accept what was being reported as absolute truth? If there was, I’d like to know because I’d run out and buy textbooks from that era.

Get my drift?

History is Anecdotes

I have written before about how we study history in our home and have since refined that philosophy to include memorization of a timeline as well as Presidents’ names.

With a firm foundation on some very basic facts, we then segue into individual biographies, anecdotes and otherwise interesting trivia. Now, here’s where it can get tricky.

After the basic facts of someone’s life – place of birth, date of birth, childhood home, mother, father, sister, brother (and sometimes not even that!) all we are left with is the stuff of a life lived. And life, as we know, is messy.

But the fun, the joy in history comes from its very inability to wrap it and tie it with a clean bow.

And so we read and wonder about George Washington’s mother who often complained about her son not sending her money and Mary Todd Lincoln chasing her husband Abraham down the street with a knife. We admire Andrew Jackson fighting off his own assassin and beating him with his cane at 67 years of age when the rest of the people around him froze.

The anecdotes, the trivia, the details, and yes, even the “fake news” that may or may not be true, add color, depth and – believe it or not – truth – to history.
It adds truth because no two people saw the same event from the same perspective. They were limited in time, in space, in their cultural situation, their thinking – limited people with limited attention spans, varying levels of interest and somewhere else to go.

I’m not arguing that objective truth does not exist, mind you, just that if you’re hoping to get it from people, you had better have more than one source because what you will get will be fractured, anecdotal and always a little skewed this way or that.

Laziness or Textbooks?

Jim Gaffigan says that the news media is like that slightly annoying friend of yours who knows what’s happening and is full of “Did you know…?” “Have you heard…?” I wish more people held this view.

Because even with the mantle of supposed transparency of journalism, this is true. Cameras and the printed word can lull us into thinking that the ultimate picture of objective. But it’s not. It’s just one perspective of what actually happened.

So what is it that makes us blindly believe all news when it’s reported? Is it that we’ve been spoon-fed history through such textbooks? Is it because we’ve been so brainwashed in public school that we are used to two-dimensional cardboard character in a committee-approved politically correct history textbooks?

There’s only half a step between “if it’s there in the textbook, it must be true” to “if the newspaper says so, it must have happened.”

False information has always been around. There has never not been a need to sift through and question.

Never in the history of time or American history for that matter could you put skepticism aside and blindly accept what the magazines, rags, neighbors, newspapers, water cooler junta, or reports said. For all you knew, everything was tabloid talk.

Homeschooling, History & Current Affairs

I am a huge fan of the internet. I couldn’t be happier with access to more than one news site, more than one perspective. Give me another blogger with something to say, something to report. The more kaleidoscopic an event is in reporting, the fewer chances some one person has to tamper with it.

Does this mean the readers have to be more vigilant and weigh information? Yes, of course it does. But it’s what they shouldn’t have stopped doing in the first place.

Discernment is a skill that we value in homeschooling. It is one of the reasons why even if we use a history textbook, we only use it as a “spine” for the curriculum. It is also why we watch current events and discuss them, relating them to the past as often as we can.

If you’d like to know more about how we study history, get my book The Classical Unschooler

And if you’d like to read some fun, historical anecdotes this President’s Day, check out my listicle about my most recommended American history books.

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Author: Purva Brown

Writer / blogger at http://TheClassicalUnschooler.com - unapologetically blending two seeming opposites.

2 thoughts on “On Studying History & Fake News”

  1. I love your perspective on this. I hadn’t really considered all of that before reading this post. It’s completely true. It’s not as though this time in history has a monopoly on fake news or sensationalization. Thank you for the reality check.

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