From the Letters to the Editor column of the September 2004 Perspectives

On History and Computers

Jesse Lemisch, September 2004

To the Editor:

I was disappointed by Ronald Smith's "Battling Napoleon in the Western Civ Classroom" (May 2004), as I have been by many Perspectives articles on the utility to historians of advances in computers and web sites. These things are extremely useful, but they ought to be viewed essentially as large collections of documents. As with any other such collection, the following questions arise: Who put them together? What are his/her biases and interpretations? How is the selection made and delimited?

Early in his article, Smith writes of a computer simulation game that it paid "very careful attention to the historical details of the battle," and he cites, among other things, weather conditions, uniforms, and battlefield topography. I waited in vain for another shoe to drop, reading on in expectation of some evaluation of the implicit interpretation embedded in the material presented, but found no mention of this amidst the extended discussion about the use of such simulations, taking their content as a given. Should we teach such simulations entirely within the interpretive limits of those who assemble them? What does that teach our students? It's a positive step for Perspectives to tell us about such things, but they should be scrutinized as history, with a little less geewhiz about the technology.

Jesse Lemisch
John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York (Emeritus)