Reflections on the Future of Civil War History, Part 4: That Unnamed Agency

NPS Logo

Other posts on the conference: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 5

There was an agency of the federal government that originally planned to sponsor the Future of Civil War History conference. They also planned to pay the travel funds for many of its employees so they could attend the conference in person. However, the recent Congressional sequestration has forced all entities within this organization to make severe budget cuts that have serious implications for the employees (full-time, part-time, and seasonal) of this agency, those looking to be employed in the future by this agency, and the local economies in which this agency operates. For this particular conference, this agency had to pull its sponsorship and many of the employees who were counting on their travel funds being at least partially covered ended up having to pay their own way to get to Gettysburg.

There were many at the conference who–whether in jest or in all seriousness, I’m not sure–took to referring to this organization as “that unnamed agency” or something similar to that when making their presentations. Many laughed whenever the term was used, and it was a sort of running joke throughout the conference that this agency would be referred to by this term.

Count me as someone who wasn’t laughing. It would do well to remember that the National Park Service did not ask to have its budget cut by Congress. It wasn’t their fault that the sequester happened or that the numbers would be skewed in such a way that it would affect them so deeply. The National Park Service is an important cultural attribute of our country that helps local economies and does a fantastic job of educating the broader public about American history. Millions of people of all ages travel the country visiting National Parks every year. Contrast that with an academic book–which is considered a success if 1,000 copies are sold–and one can see that the NPS is a trusted authority that for many people is their only interaction with the study of history in their everyday lives.

I consider it no laughing matter that the NPS has been hit with these cuts. NPS Director Jon Jarvis recently commented that the sequester “is real to us,” and that it will lead to cancelled events, dirty bathrooms, and a loss of seasonal staff to help with the surge in visitors that will arrive this summer.

I was actually encouraged by the discourse between academic and public historians at the conference and hope to see this dialogue continue in the future, and it was awesome to see so many academics, public historians, and k-12 teachers in one place talking to each other. I believe that the rise of digital technology will eventually lead to a stronger blending of academic and public history, perhaps even obliterating the terms completely. It seems that the majority of history projects, regardless of who created them, will need to be created with the public in mind in order to gain much traction in the intellectual marketplace. With the recent comments of several politicians and college Presidents who have argued that a liberal arts degree is a “poor investment,” we must do a better job of convincing the public that studying the arts and humanities makes us better people, even if they choose a different career path. The National Park Service must be utilized in this effort, but it will be difficult. On the one hand, we need to follow Peter Carmichael’s call to create interpretations at NPS sites that complicate the narrative and leave our visitors confused and wanting to further the study the past. Yet John Hennessy reminded us that no matter what programs or interpretations the NPS creates, public historians must always ask, “does the public respond?” Finding the right balance of academic knowledge and interpretive story telling will be key in not only shrinking the divisions between academic and public historians, but also helping to foster a more historically informed populace.

Anyway, the point is that I didn’t appreciate having the NPS being referred to as “that unnamed agency” and I would surmise that some Park staff at the conference didn’t appreciate it either. These budget cuts to the NPS are serious, and I think we can all agree that this agency is necessary in helping to ensure that a “Future of Civil War History” exists 25, 50, and 100 years from now.