Should History Professors Teach Students to Lie?

15 05 2012

T. Mills Kelly is a respected history professor at George Mason University. He is an expert on eastern European history and has published all of the usual scholarly books and articles with academic presses.  He also teaches an undergraduate history class about historical hoaxes and lies. The students also do a group project that involves creating a historical hoax and disseminating it online. Previous group projects include websites, Wikipedia entries, and YouTube videos designed to educate the public about a totally non-existent pirate who allegedly sailed the waters of Chesapeake Bay in the 1870s.  They even forged primary sources and put them online as part of all of the con. Apparently this hoax fooled a bunch of locals, who were intrigued to learn something new about their region’s history, and the newspaper USA Today, a national daily with millions of readers.

This year’s group project involved the creation of a fictitious serial killer. The students attributed several unsolved killings of real women in New York to this killer. They posted information about the person online and the story took on a life of its own.

Here are the learning goals for the class, taken directly from the syllabus:

Learning Goals
I do have some specific learning goals for this course. I hope that you’ll improve your research and analytical skills and that you’ll become a much better consumer of historical information. I hope you’ll become more skeptical without becoming too skeptical for your own good. I hope you’ll learn some new skills in the digital realm that can translate to other courses you take or to your eventual career. And, I hope you’ll be at least a little sneakier than you were before you started the course.

When I heard of this class, my initial reaction was that it was absurd for a historian to teach students to fabricate hoaxes. In fact, I was outraged by what Kelly was doing. I now realize that there is a method to this madness and that his class advances some really important learning objectives, including the inculcating of digital literacy and a healthy scepticism regarding online sources of information. I bet the students who took this class learned to take everything they read in USA Today or indeed any newspaper with a big grain of salt. That’s good. We don’t want our students to become grassy-knoll conspiracy theorists, but they should think very critically about all sources of information.



2 responses

16 05 2012
J Liedl

It’s an engaging idea for inculcating skepticism but I think I wouldn’t go with that for my own teaching. Academics have a bad enough reputation as out-of-touch eggheads without adding to that through a hoax that seems to be malicious.

19 05 2012


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