All of history is a malleable instrument in my hands. Ohhh, I have accumulated all of these pasts and I possess every fact – yet the facts are mine to use as I will and, even using them truthfully, I change them.
– Frank Herbert
How do we understand the past? The past is not fixed and rigid. It exists outside of us and our understanding of it is constantly evolving. Narratives of the past get changed in light of new evidence. We approach the past from different perspectives and these inform what we make of it. Facts from the past have to be contextualized and interpreted. No matter the level of objectivity that we seek, our interpretations are clouded by our worldviews. Sometimes this is done consciously and at other times, it is unconscious. What may have been a canonical interpretation at one time may even become questionable or rejected at another time period.
The challenge is teaching students to understand the malleability of history. Often, textbooks provide a single narrative devoid of the complexities of historical events. Students are not exposed to the different interpretations and how those have changed over time. Wikipedia offers a lens through which we can see the changes and shifts in a historical account. Unlike printed encyclopedias which might take years to update entries, the entries on Wikipedia are constantly changing as people make edits to them. Sometimes the edits are minor and other times, major. Though Wikipedia prides its entries as being neutral, this does not mean that the narratives are devoid of perspectives.
One way in which the malleability of Wikipedia can become an effective teaching strategy is its pages histories. Many people who visit Wikipedia do not bother to look at the changes that have been done to the entry. They read the account and then move on. As scholars and students, we should probe more these pages. We should look at them as we would any piece of historical evidence or account. Wikipedia has a valuable tool that enables us do that and that is the page history. You can see who created the page, when it was created, the first entry made and all the edits and additions thereafter. Having students look at the history of the page and analyze the changes that have been done to the page will go a long way to helping them understand that historical accounts are not static. There are often changes in the narratives and shifts in the analysis as we continue to question the historical evidence available to us. It is in this historical questioning that we begin to make sense of the malleable past.