Scene 19: Lincoln simulation demo

Two senators and two of their experts see a live demonstration of an amazing new US History simulation.

Our history will be made to come alive for young learners, not just in presentation but in personal interaction.

The demonstration was jaw-droppingly cool: a simulated modern journalist named Zhang was interviewing Abraham Lincoln in 1862 as Lincoln prepared his Emancipation Proclamation. And by the journalist's side, the student was able to sit and was allowed to direct questions at the President as well. The visuals were incredibly real-looking.

Lincoln simulation

In the real world, the company representative, Mr. Samson, alternated between talking into the simulation as a “pretend student” and providing asides to the eminent audience of four observing the demo. "So, we've created this 'separate-reality' area where students are able to have a secret conversation with President Lincoln. And it's a friendly, no-pressure atmosphere."

The simulated journalist Zhang had just asked President Lincoln, "Why now?", and Mr. Lincoln had provided plainspoken comments about slavery around the world, and how the US was a laggard with regard to abolition. Mr. Samson then announced to his audience, "So, here now comes my 13-year-old-kid question." He paused, and then, "Mr. Lincoln, why couldn't you just let the South become its own country, like it wanted?"

Mr. Lincoln nodded gravely and began, "That's a fair question. Who was I to tell them they couldn't have self-determination, right?"

"Right!" answered Mr. Samson.

Mr. Lincoln held forth on the moral depravity of slavery, and on the possibility that the South might be allowed to keep slavery in exchange for surrender.  Mr. Samson interrupted him a few times, expressing confusion about certain points, asking for clarification… "playing dumb" a bit, for the benefit of his audience. Mr. Lincoln listened carefully, responding appropriately, providing relevant context, always showing patience and warmth.

Then Mr. Lincoln surprised the group by turning the tables. "Mr. Zhang, Billy… I would like your counsel. What do you think will happen if I do give up the fight, and allow the South to go its own way? Do you believe the South will eventually abolish slavery themselves?"

The simulated journalist Zhang glanced over at Mr. Samson, and then looked upward, brow furrowed.

Jamaal Anderson—one of the four observers—kept his thoughts to himself, but was annoyed at how much money had clearly been spent on development of a slick demo whose advanced production level was far too expensive to be practical for a real product. (Not the animation so much, nor even the natural language comprehension—but rather, Lincoln's impressive conversational agility. The industry cliché was that each ten-percent increase in conversational quality tripled the design effort.) However, Anderson had been in this type of meeting many times during his career, and he knew that this was how the funding game was played.

Senator Eva Florez, in contrast, was more credulous and excited. "Can I answer?"

"Of course!" smiled Mr. Samson.

She thought distractedly a bit, and then turned to Senator Joens. "This goes right to the issue I'll want us to discuss later. There's a fine line here. If Mr. Lincoln is too… Well, we'll come back to that. Just for fun, let me try this one. Mr. Lincoln? (Do I address him that way? Okay. I'm Billy, right? Okay.) Mr. Lincoln, if we allow the South to secede, we'll be giving up our position of moral leadership, and future historians will see it as a great tragedy that…"

Senator Florez had been working on US History curriculum guidance for Fed Ed, and had organized a small, private, "friendly" meeting that would commence after the technology demo by her generous supporter's friend had completed.

In addition to Senator Joens, she had invited Dr. Anderson from Fed Ed, as well as a United States University academic named Stuart Rosen. She believed that all three of them were interested in reinstating key moral principles that the Globals had previously succeeded in torching.  (Secretly, she also hoped for scraps of intel—via Joens—about  Socialists’ opposition to the Amendment.)

Dr. Anderson was always deferential, and he was politically astute, having managed to keep his position in the Fed Ed department through five administrations and to ascend to the top job in the current administration.  As for Professor Rosen, who had a fine reputation in the field of Civics Education, Florez had recruited him to do much of the legwork in this legislative effort.

After Mr. Samson shook hands with them and exited the room, Senator Florez framed the discussion, explaining to Joens and Anderson how critical this curriculum effort was for the future of the country and that the goal was to get a bill into committee by April. For Senator Joens in particular, she described how, under the prior Global appointee John Mackenzie, curriculum policy at Fed Ed had shifted towards a cultural relativism in the guise of pedagogical innovation. As she attempted to explain, she realized that she was reaching the limits of her familiarity with the details, and so she invited Professor Rosen to elaborate.

"Yes, that's right," began Rosen. "For example, they introduced standards recommending that interactive content should use its information about individual students to nudge each of them towards what they call 'balanced' views. Mackenzie didn't so much try to change the list of recommended US History topics and sequences, but they did continue the long-term trend towards dictating how students are taught."

Anderson saw his opportunity to ingratiate himself to Senator Florez. "That's right, and of course they believe that they know what 'balanced' is supposed to mean! Which is all well and good, but what's missing here is a sense of direction, a sense of why students need to learn history."

Joens was attempting to process all of this. "So… the program would change the content depending on the student? Help me understand—so, for example, if a student shows their thinking is too much on one side, the software emphasizes the other side, basically like that?"

Rosen nodded. "Right, basically right. Mackenzie and the Globals would argue that they developed objective criteria for what 'balanced' means, and also that they're trying to use research-based design methods to increase comprehension and long-term retention."

"But we see where this leads," interrupted Senator Florez. "Even in the simulation we just saw, where President Lincoln asked us what we think? What's the message? That there's no right answers! That your opinion is as good as mine, is as good as the other guy's."

"Yes, I see," said Joens, nodding, his brow furrowed.

"I'm all in favor of improving students' critical thinking skills," she continued, "but the research proves that kids are impressionable. This is a time in their lives where they need 'anchors,' they need to learn values. We have a responsibility to build a shared national identity, we've been losing sight of that."

"Indeed," said Anderson. "The research bears it out: when kids don't grow up understanding and appreciating their nation, there's issues with—correlation with misbehavior and crime, and with lower educational achievement, and so forth. There's a time and a place for everything. There's plenty of opportunity later in college for them to expand their view to different perspectives."

Joens was eager to jump in and agree, though also felt a bit cornered. The phrase "critical thinking" echoed in his head. This was a concept to which he had always resonated strongly. He mused that, long ago, he had even adopted a mental rule of thumb that there was little or nothing that trumped critical thinking in importance. Yet, from experience with his own children, he knew how essential it was to give them clarity about the importance of the US role in the world.

Senator Florez eyed him carefully. She would need Socialist support for her bill, though it appeared this could take some time.

“Jamaal,” she said sweetly, “thank you so much.  I think for this next discussion, we should let you get back to business.  I know how much you are doing, we all appreciate it!”

Many of us learned about history by reading names, dates, and battles.  It works well enough for historians, but not for students.  History needs to be made to come alive if it is to seem relevant.  When it does happen, the perspective it brings is invaluable: when citizens understand key political issues at critical historical periods, they’ll be able to apply it to their understanding of today’s national issues.

Like many, I was wowed by the gritty perspectives brought to life in the 2012 movie Lincoln.  The simulation depicted here, of course, takes it a few steps further.  Wouldn’t it be exciting if students were able to talk with Lincoln, at comprehensible level?  It would bring students into the heart of the historical dilemmas.

One could (with Senator Florez) question the wisdom of letting students make their own judgments, rather than feeding them the accepted interpretations of history as distilled by eminent historians.  The latter approach, though, is simply not memorable, and most is forgotten by students the day after the exam… cementing, in the process, young citizens’ view of history as highbrow and boring.

Even though useful new perspectives by historical researchers deepen our understanding, nevertheless the scholarly consensus about basic facts and interpretations tends to grow.  Still, there inescapably are value judgments in specifying educational curricula.  And politicians may always have their reasons for trying to meddle in such decisions.

In the short term, that can slow the progress of development of high-quality interactive multimedia learning resources.   Some “localists” cling to a vision where each school or district develops its own materials appropriate to themselves.    However, as teachers and parents witness the benefits of the aforementioned resources, demand and expectations for its availability will keep growing.  And because of the size of the teams of specialists required to build them, these production efforts will tend to be increasingly centralized.

Which is not a bad thing.  But such teams must have sensitivity towards the needs and beliefs of different categories of stakeholders.


cast of characters