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The danger with syncing history to the 21st century

The study of the past is at its best when it takes people out of their own time, and into another one. Studying history is like time travel, that way. It brings you someplace else, some time else.

I mostly feel that way—transported—when I’m in the archives, when I open up a box of someone’s papers, pull out a folder, and begin reading something someone wrote, a long time ago, on a piece of paper. I get that feeling in other places, too. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt closer to the past than when standing at the end of the Long Wharf, in Boston, with my students, looking across the harbor, and across the sea, talking about how many days on board ship it would have taken for a Tory to get home in the last days before the American Revolution began. Here’s where I don’t get that feeling: staring at my computer.

The danger with syncing history to the 21st century is that it means, or at least I take it to mean, ramping up our investment in “technologically enhanced learning,” which is usually some kind of shorthand for asking students to do all their work from their computers by hop-scotching from one website to another.

There’s such terrific stuff out there—so many digital collections, so many online exhibits, so many teaching plans, endless and wonderful resources. Everyone should use this stuff and all good teachers know how to use it with care and caution. But I also find a lot of it perilous, and insidious.

I think of this as the Swimming Pool Problem. You could use some very fancy footwork on Google maps to calculate the ratio of swimming pools to house lots in different American communities. That would be fun, and satisfying. You’d gain a sense of mastery over your computer, over the retrieval and management of knowledge. You’d discover, no doubt, that there are more swimming pools in the suburbs than in the city. Was this really a good use of your time?

Possibly the best assignment I ever had in college was a class project involving reconstructing the population of a small New England town in the years 1820-1890. I’m sure the professor is retired now. I’ve wondered whether the person who took her place is syncing this assignment to the 20th century, and doing it all on a course website.

It went like this. Every student was assigned a burying ground. And, on Saturdays, then we walked, singly or in pairs, gravestone to gravestone, taking notes on yellow-lined pads, taking a census of the dead. The children, it seemed, kept dying, and in the same years. None of us owned a computer. We compiled all our data on scraps of paper, during one long meeting in a Dunkin Donuts at the edge of a potter’s field, and, when we finally calculated the years that smallpox must have hit, we got very quiet, and the donuts disappeared, and, for a moment, we were there, in a forgotten world, listening to the cries of mourners.