Teaching students to lie: historical method through hoaxes

By deliberately making false historical sources, students can learn to think more critically. Historical hoax image www.shutterstock.com

What happens when you teach students how to lie? Answer: they become better historians.

More than a decade ago, back in the days of Web 0.5, a student of mine submitted a generally well-written essay on “Ante Pavelić, Great Hero of the Croatian Nation.” Now, if you know your history of World War II, you may remember Pavelić as the leader of the Croatian Ustaše government that was perhaps the most vicious of the puppet regimes aligned with Nazi Germany.

How, I wondered, had she decided that Pavelić was such a great hero?

The solution lay in her sources. All of the major citations in the paper were drawn from Croatian nationalist websites that lauded Pavelić for his supposed achievements on behalf of the nation and denied any role he had in the atrocities committed by his regime – some denying the atrocities had occurred at all.

When I pointed my student to histories of the period written by historians whose work focused on the history of Yugoslavia, she was surprised to find many significant differences between what she found on those websites and what she found in the published histories. We were then able to have a very good conversation about the critical assessment of sources – an essential conversation for any budding historian.

Anyone who has taught history at the high school or university level in the past decade has experienced some version of this story. Despite many stern warnings from teachers or parents, too often students uncritically accept what they find online, especially if it is served up in the first page of Google search results.

Of course, the same can be said of both scholars and society as a whole.

Over the years, I’ve issued many admonitions about the critical reading of sources, with decidedly mixed results. Several years ago, I decided that perhaps the problem was not the students, but the teaching.

So, in an attempt to teach my students the sort of scepticism historians need for successful historical investigation and analysis, I turned the entire process on its head and created a course in which my students create lies about the past and turn them loose on the internet. After two weeks, we end the hoax and come clean.

One of the most famous instances of historical forgeries was The Hitler Diaries – diary excerpts that purported to be written by the Nazi leader. Wikimedia commons

My purpose was to create better historians by helping them develop critical thinking skills in an unorthodox way. I believed that if my students went to the trouble of creating an elaborate historical hoax, they would learn just how easy it is to lie online. Hopefully, in doing this they would become better critical thinkers when it was time to do their own research.

I’ve taught the course twice now and, based on the results I’ve seen and my students’ self-evaluations, I think it’s safe to say that no one who took either of those courses will ever again believe what they read online without cocking one eye, raising an eyebrow, and asking themselves, “Really?”

In just 14 weeks they acquired essential critical thinking skills, but they also had a lot of fun.

For this reason alone, teaching students to create a historical hoax turned out to be the most effective way I’ve come across to teach historical method.

Because they had to create plausible “false facts” to support their hoaxes, my students became much closer readers of historical sources. Only by reading the “true facts” very carefully could they create plausible lies. They also spent many hours in libraries, archives, and visiting historical sites, all so the hoaxes they created would be more believable.

Just to be clear, the hoaxes my students create are truly innocuous. I place strict limits on what they cannot do (violate copyright, create a hoax about health care, etc.) and we have extensive discussions of the ethics of our work.

But something else happens in this class that I have only rarely seen in 16 years of university history teaching: my students laugh their way through the entire semester.

Why should it matter that they laugh? After all, the study of history is serious business. Or is that just a conceit of too many of us who teach about the past?

No doubt, there are scientific studies to show that the more engaged students are in their learning, the more they learn. And there are probably others to show that if students are having fun, they are more engaged.

But I don’t need these studies to know that the students I’ve taught in the first two iterations of this course were the most engaged, the most focused, and the hardest working of any group of students I’ve ever taught.

Teaching a course where my students lie to the public is not uncontroversial. Since an article on my course appeared in The Atlantic, I’ve received my share of hate mail as well as many well wishers.

Too often, debates about historical pedagogy are about what should be taught, not about how our students might best learn about the past. For a brief moment after that story appeared, hundreds of thousands of people around the world considered that latter question. How can that be a bad thing?