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CEO DATELINE – Association survey provides view of how Americans learn history

Aug. 31, 2021
By William Ehart

The American Historical Association and Fairleigh Dickinson University polled 1,816 Americans on where they get their understanding of history and how reliable those sources are.

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The results were sobering: Respondents said their second-most popular sources of history—fictional films and TV—also were among the least trustworthy. (Most respondents said their primary sources for historical information are documentaries and TV.)

“The top three go-to sources for historical knowledge were all in video format, thus being a microcosm of Americans’ general predilection for consuming information from screens,” Pete Burkholder, history professor at Fairleigh Dickinson, and Dana Schaffer, deputy director of the AHA, wrote in an Aug. 30 article in AHA’s Perspectives on History magazine.

There were bright spots.

“Over three-fourths of respondents, regardless of age group, education level, gender, geographic location, or political affiliation, said it was acceptable to make learners uncomfortable by teaching the harm some people have done to others,” the authors wrote.

“The clear call for more investigation of racial and ethnic subgroups, as well as the acceptance of teaching uncomfortable histories, undercuts putative justifications for recent legislative efforts to limit instruction on these topics,” they wrote.

Further, respondents reported that studying history was important. Eighty-four percent said history was just as valuable to study as other fields such as engineering and business.

And respondents ranked social media low on both trustworthiness and their likelihood of using it to learn about history.

AHA and Fairleigh Dickinson conducted the study in late 2020—asking respondents about their habits back to January 2019—to assess “how the American public understands the past.” The survey received funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities. It follows a landmark 1998 study called “The Presence of the Past.”