The 1998 Steven Spielberg film, “Saving Private Ryan” finds its premise in the “Bixby Letter,” which was read in the opening scene, and had been sent by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864, to a mother who had lost five sons who fought for the Union in the Civil War. The letter gained instant fame when it was published in The Boston Evening Transcript on November 25, 1864.
The scene from the movie was re-enacted when Tom Hanks, the star of Saving Private Ryan, was awarded AFI’s Lifetime Achievement Award. Steven Spielberg closed by saying “those words, written 80 years before D-Day, remind us that our experience is a living history, and that there is much to learn about now, from yesterday.”
A year after Saving Private Ryan opened, American Heritage published an article titled, “The Trouble with the Bixby Letter.” It noted that one Lincoln scholar declared that it “stands with the Gettysburg Address as a masterpiece in the English language,” while another called it “a piece of the American Bible.”
However, the article points out two issues with the letter. The first is that the animus behind the writing of the letter may have been misplaced; Mrs. Bixby apparently only lost two sons in the war and may have been a Confederate sympathizer who resented the letter and tore it up. More importantly, the article provides evidence that the letter was actually written by Lincoln’s personal secretary, John Hay, although perhaps with substantial input from, or outright dictation, by Lincoln.
The issue of who wrote the Bixby Letter will never be conclusively resolved. And to many, it may not matter so much whether Lincoln actually wrote the letter or merely authorized its issuance under his name. There remains a great deal of truth in Spielberg’s words that the letter shows “there is much to learn about now, from yesterday.”
The letter is a famous example of the need to teach students to adopt a healthy level skepticism (not cynicism), and desire to determine the truth, about everything they read or hear. As Napoleon Bonaparte once said, "What then is, generally speaking, the truth of history ? A fable agreed upon."
The recent Texas school textbook controversy starkly showed that the “history” that is taught to students is somewhat determined not by impartial scholars but by contemporary personal or political agendas. But political and ideological bias, from all corners, in textbooks is not a new issue. A 1989 journal article calls textbooks a “regulated commodity” and part of “the political process of adjudicating among the claims of different class, race, gender, and religious groups.”
With this as a backdrop, what is more important to teach students: how to memorize a particular version of the "facts," understand the narrow viewpoints presented, and be able to regurgitate both - or how to think critically for themselves?
At Dulcinea Media, we come down squarely on the side of the latter. My daughter each days reads flash cards to ready herself for an AP US History exam - a soulless learning experience unlikely to form knowledge that remains with her more than 15 minutes after the exam proctor says “pencils down.”
On the other hand, if instead of committing to memory specific facts and particular viewpoints, she were encouraged to think for herself about history – well, that would stay with her forever.
Encouraging students to think for themselves has been a guiding principal of findingDulcinea since we first picked up our “pencils” in September 2006.
One way we do so is by making it easy to find primary sources about a subject. Every second my child spends viewing or reading an interview, letter, or diary entry, rather than a textbook page, is time she spends thinking for herself about the import of the document in front of her.
To provide context for the many interview sites we've uncovered, we publish "Interview of the Day," which leads students to some of the most compelling video, audio and text interviews of the 20th century. Do you teach your students about Amelia Earhart? We found two newsreel interviews with her from 1928. How about Eleanor Roosevelt? Watch the interview she gave to Mike Wallace in 1957, in which she remarked about The Cold War, "I feel quite sure that the American people, if they have knowledge and leadership, can meet any crisis just as well as they met it over and over again in the past.”
In “On This Day,” and "Happy Birthday," we include a healthy injection of primary sources, drawing from resources such as this repository of video and audio recordings of 20th Century presidential speeches. We discuss what led up to an important historical event, what happened in the ensuing years, draw historic parallels where relevant, and, as noted in this blog post following the death of Howard Zinn, we discuss controversies and contrary viewpoints about the event, whether it be the bombing of Coventry, the impeachment of President Clinton, the Midnight Ride of Paul Revere, the myth of the messenger who ran to Marathon, or exploring the question of whether the Wright Brothers were the first men to fly.
Many times, we help teach skepticism by covering historic hoaxes, such as:
- one in today’s On This Day, about “Piltdown Man,” about a skull discovered in 1912 that, for 41 years, was thought conclusively to be evidence of the “missing link” between apes and humans;
- the 8 month saga of Donald Crowhurst, who spent many months deceiving the world into believing he was an underdog winning an around-the-world sailing race; and
- the infamous Rosie Ruiz, who is believed to have faked a high-ranking finish in the New York City Marathon and then a win in the Boston Marathon.
In our Teaching Ten Steps to Better Web research, we help educators teach students the skills they need to assess the credibility of a source, and to find confirmatory, opposing or alternative viewpoints. We caution that students must analyze every aspect of a site to determine if it is authoritative, objective, and up-to-date. Teachers themselves need to stop teaching students that ".gov" sites are always reliable - for example, WhiteHouse.gov is not at all objective when it comes to the legacy of presidents, the various federal agencies provide an elevated view of their importance and success.
To bring a healthy skeptical attitude forward to the events of today, we compare pop culture depictions of history to reality, such as in these articles about Amelia Earhart and the racehorse Secretariat, both the subjects of recent movies.
Furthermore, our Beyond the Headlines section is unlike anything students will find anywhere else. It provides a 360-degree view of current events by cohesively weaving together information from multiple sources, and offering the best-reasoned opposing viewpoints on controversial topics.
A white paper released by the Knight Commission, written by Professor Renee Hobbs of Temple University’s Media Education Lab, read in part:
"Finding Dulcinea... addresses the “context deficit” that occurs with online searching….“Behind the Headlines,” which provides contextual background information on news and current events, while another section, “Suspicious Sites,” offers an analysis of how sites with inaccurate and misleading information can be made to seem credible.”
As the sentiments of Steven Spielberg intimated, this is the purpose of teaching students how to think critically about history – so they can learn to think critically about today. This will carry them – and our society - a lot further than their memorizing flash cards.
Founder & CEO