Barack Obama’s Television and the Teaching of Identity

Not too long ago a controversy emerged in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where the city council approved Howard Zinn’s socialist history book A People’s History of the United States for usage in Philadelphia public schools. I don’t know how school leaders in Philadelphia have reacted to the possibility of using Zinn in the classroom, but the initial Washington Post article was littered with comments ranging from an outright declaration to hang Zinn as a traitor (which is tough to do because Zinn died in 2010) to the belief that socialists are only interested in teaching “white guilt” to students.

Well, if the shoe fits your left foot, you may as well put the other on your right. News about a controversial classroom textbook is now coming out of Dupo, Illinois, where a biography of Barack Obama being used in fourth grade classrooms at a local elementary school purports to argue that white people would never vote for a black president.

Here’s an excerpt from the book:


The book is written by Jane Sutcliffe, a Rhode Island children’s book author. Here is her Amazon page and personal website. Ironically enough, the book is actually approved as a supplement to the school’s Common Core curriculum (an irony not lost on the author of this post).

Sutclifffe has written children’s books on a wide range of topics, including Abigail Adams, John Deere, and Milton Hershey. Just for fun, I decided to peruse her biography of Ronald Reagan to compare and contrast the use of language in both books. Here’s an excerpt from her work on Reagan:

Ronald Reagan And Justice For All

Reagan’s aversion to racial discrimination during his youth and Obama’s drug usage are both true. But look at how Sutcliffe interprets the childhoods of these men. According to Sutcliffe, “Dutch” is raised in a wholesome environment around loving family members, friends at school, and his teammates on the football team. “Dutch” is taught from an early age the difference between right and wrong, and never seems to have any issues with discovering his personal identity. “Barry,” on the other hand, is raised by the television. “Barry’s” family is removed from the narrative as he turns to the television to figure out what it’s like to be black. Sutcliffe doesn’t mention if “Barry” though about what it meant to be “white,” which suggests to me that Sutcliffe views Obama as a black person, not a biracial person. “Barry’s” family, friends, and acquaintances are stripped of their agency in helping to shape his identity. Thanks to the television, he can’t distinguish between right and wrong; “Barry’s” later drug usage stems from an identity crisis and a belief that doing drugs and drinking may constitute “what it means to be black.”

I find it sad that in many regards this book isn’t nearly as bad as the “Obama’s a Kenyan-Muslim-Socialist” tripe that so often distracts us from assessing actual criticisms of the President’s time in office, including the indefinite detention for alleged terrorists (including those at Guantanamo Bay) without review, his military intervention in Libya two years ago (and recent efforts to unilaterally attack Syria), his support for drone strikes, or the exorbitant spending increases on the “War on Drugs” that have had little to no positive effect on the drug trade or drug usage in the United States (Obama should know). Sutcliffe’s book isn’t bad because it paints Obama in a less than flattering light. We’re all biased, and it doesn’t really surprise me that “Dutch” comes out looking much better than “Barry.” This book is bad because it’s blatantly racist and wholly inappropriate for a fourth grade classroom. The fact that it acted as a supplement to the Common Core curriculum is also ridiculous.

I ask you, dear readers, to consider these questions:

1. Educators generally agree that history instruction in elementary schools benefits from extensive analysis of “great individuals” through biography. When looking at these individuals, however, teachers must necessarily simplify the narrative and focus on certain characteristics and events in a person’s life. Is it appropriate to talk about drinking and drug usage in an elementary classroom, even if the person in discussion did engage in those behaviors? Likewise, would it be appropriate to talk about the Bill Clinton sex scandal or George W. Bush’s questionable military record in that setting?

2. Should elementary teachers focus wholly on the good aspects of an individual? Is there room to talk about a person’s mistakes and shortcomings?

3. Why aren’t more historians following James Swanson’s example and modifying their books for younger audiences? Swanson created versions of his books on the pursuit of John Wilkes Booth and the funerals of Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis for middle school and high school audiences. I think this effort is admirable and I wonder why more don’t aim to create a version of their publications for k-12 audiences, especially since historians seem to be perpetually concerned with disseminating their work to a broader audience.

4. How do we add complexity and critical historical thinking into the elementary classroom?


Counterfactuals and Anniversaries in History

As many of us already know, today marks the 150th anniversary of President Abraham Lincoln’s famous “Gettysburg Address.” Friday will mark the 50th anniversary of the death of President John F. Kennedy. A lot of media attention surrounds the anniversaries of these historical events and it seems as if everybody’s writing essays and/or talking about the legacies of Lincoln and Kennedy.

While this increased press attention towards the past temporarily emerges, I find myself wondering why historical anniversaries should matter to society. Do people really care about “this day in history”? Does the Gettysburg Address evoke a special feeling or provide insights into the past on November 19 that aren’t otherwise there on November 18 or November 20? Do we “feel” Kennedy’s death in a more personal manner on November 22 than other days? Will anyone remember what they did on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s address or the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination? I don’t have clear answers, but I have an idea I’d like to bring to the table. What I’ve noticed with many recent discussions is that rather than talking about the actual moment in which Lincoln spoke or Kennedy was shot, many public thinkers have used counterfactual history to guide their discussions about these two men and their legacies well after died. Perhaps historical anniversaries are important to us because they offer an opportunity to talk about contemporary issues in society.

I define conterfactual history as essentially “what if” history. When I turned on the television this past Sunday, I happened to flip on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” David Gregory, Tom Brokaw, Chris Matthews, and a host of others discussed the Kennedy assassination for a brief while, but the most impassioned discussion revolved around the “what if” questions. What if Kennedy had survived? What would have happened during the 1964 election? Would Kennedy’s stance on the Domino Theory have changed had he lived to see the increasingly tenuous situation in Vietnam? These questions are what I consider counterfactual history. We don’t have evidence to predict what Lincoln or Kennedy would have done or how events and circumstances would have changed had they lived past their untimely deaths, but we are often attracted to these questions because they challenge us to use our imagination about “how things could have been” or how our situation could be better or worse in our world today. To many people, history is an account of what actually happened in the past based on historical evidence and interpretation. Counterfactuals, however, go beyond the archived record and into the realms of our personal experiences and ideologies.

Scholars have also used counterfactuals when looking at the Gettysburg Address. Over at the History News Network, Alan J. Singer muses on what Reconstruction would have looked like had Lincoln lived beyond 1865:

I suspect if . . .  Abraham Lincoln had lived, presidential Reconstruction would not have differed much from the program promoted by his successor Andrew Johnson, and it probably would have received more support because of Lincoln’s political capital earned as a victorious war president. In this circumstance, the United States may never have seen the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments defining African Americans as citizens entitled to vote.

Whereas Singer suggests that Reconstruction would have remained largely the same under the Lincoln administration (and perhaps even worse for African Americans because the 14th and 15th amendments may not have been passed), Scott Hancock speculates on the possibility that Lincoln may have supported Thaddeus Stevens’ and the Radical Republicans’ efforts at redistributing southern lands abandoned by former Confederates to newly freed African Americans:

What would Lincoln have done to take advantage of one nation-changing opportunity: Thaddeus Stevens’s proposal in 1867 to take land that had belonged to Confederates whose property value exceeded $5,000? He was a master of political compromise but also was committed to making the Union whole. He may have seen such a measure as so punitive it would have keep [sic] the wounds of war too deep and fresh. But Lincoln only compromised when it did not involve forsaking his core principles, and he understood freedom to be severely compromised without equality.

So the question emerges: is counterfactual history useful or relevant to understanding the past?

My answer is no (mostly). Brooks Simpson at Crossroads has addressed several counterfactual questions in Civil War history (what would have happened to slavery in America without the Civil War, how would the Lincoln administration have dealt with the media in the age of television, what if the Confederacy won, etc.) that have provoked much discussion on that blog. These questions are somewhat interesting and to a certain degree they challenge us to consider why the past happened the way it did. For example, asking about the state of slavery without the Civil War may provoke an interesting discussion about the state of slavery in 1860 and why war may have been unavoidable at that time. However, these discussions often veer into less useful territory by asking when slavery would have ended, which no one knows and is impossible to judge. Any educated answer to such a question would require a great deal of subjective speculation.

I suppose that is where I start to have problems with counterfactuals. I don’t know what Abraham Lincoln would have done during Reconstruction, I don’t know what he would think of Barack Obama, and I don’t know if he’d prefer Captain Crunch or scrambled eggs for breakfast if he were alive today. I don’t know how John F. Kennedy would have addressed Vietnam or what he would have said had he been alive when the first man made it to the moon in 1969. While these questions are fun, there is little evidence to back any claims made by those living today. In reality counterfactual history tells us more about the way we want history to play out rather than saying anything substantial about what actually happened.

This notion of counterfactual history as dialogue about the present may partly explain why historical anniversaries are important. Anniversaries present a sense of time and chronology that give us a better sense of our place in history and where we’ve come from, but I think their real importance (if there is any) lies in provoking questions about where we are now and where we’re going in the future.

What do think about counterfactuals? Do you have a particular counterfactual that interests you?


Time for Me to Put Up or Shut Up

In my last post I reflected on author and journalist Colin Woodard’s recent arguments that the United States is composed of eleven ostensibly autonomous “nations.” In explaining the origins of these “nations,” Woodard purports to assert that the cultural differences between these “nations” are so significant that our political disagreements over contemporary issues such as gun violence and gun control can be traced back to cultural differences between these “nations” hundreds of years ago. I listened to several audio interviews and closely read three articles (including a rather lengthy and descriptive one in Tufts Magazine) by Woodard explaining the premise of his arguments. In analyzing these resources, I concluded that Woodard’s scholarship on this matter was rather dubious. When I refer to the word “dubious,” I do not mean to argue that Woodard’s scholarship is fraudulent or illegitimate; rather, I believe there is a lot to be uncertain about in making such strong conclusions on a rather complex topic. He may be right in his conclusions, but my understanding of various historical cultures raises many questions in my eyes.

Well, guess who had a chance to read my essay last night:

And so it goes.

As a friend and colleague remarked, “you have a book to read.” I’ve obtained a copy of Woodard’s book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America and plan on going through it meticulously over the next month or so. This reading exercise will actually be great in challenging me to read the book for method as much as for content. As I go through it, I’ll be asking several questions to help guide my understanding and interpretation of Woodard’s arguments. Most notably, I’ll ask the following:

1. What is a “nation,” as defined by Woodard? Is it a plausible definition? Ditto to the word “culture.”

2. What are the primary sources Woodard uses to bolster his argument? How does he use these sources to provide context for readers to help them comprehend what historical actors at a given period understood of the world during their lifetime? In sum, are Woodard’s interpretations reflective of what his historical actors understood of the world, or what Woodard understands of those historical actors’ worlds?

3. What secondary sources are being used?

4. What is the time frame in which Woodard proposes to analyze?

5. Does Woodard succeed in creating a “useable past” that sheds light on contemporary issues? In other words, does Woodard succeed in thinking historically, or does he merely display historical imagination?

Between two major school projects, finishing the last part of my third and final chapter of my master’s thesis (hopefully!), and the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, I’ll be plenty busy in the near future. Nevertheless, I look forward to spending time with Woodard’s book and promise to provide additional commentary on this blog at a future date. Additionally, I will do so as fairly and as impartially as possible and am perfectly willing to correct my initial assessment of Woodard’s scholarship if I can be convinced. If the roles were reversed I would hope for my scholarship to be treated in much the same manner.

I thank Colin Woodard for reading this little graduate student’s rantings and thank those who spend time out of their busy schedules to read and comment at Exploring the Past since I started this blog almost a year ago.


A Colorful Map that Tells Us Almost Nothing

Colin Woodard's Map of "The American Nations Today" Photo Credit: Tufts Magazine
Colin Woodard’s Map of “The American Nations Today” Photo Credit: Tufts Magazine

Read this article before proceeding.

Colin Woodard’s recently created map of eleven “American Nations” in the United States today is of dubious scholarship, in my opinion. It is a decidedly white, British-Isles-centric rendering of American cultural values that purports to interpret the roots of gun violence throughout the country and explain why Americans can’t come to an agreement over gun control today. It fails on both accounts and does little to sharpen our perceptions of both the past and present.

Woodard’s description of each “nation” is extremely problematic for several reasons. For one, he gives us little in the way of a time frame in which to contextualize the cultural characteristics of each “nation.” He vaguely refers to the time period in which each “nation” was “established,” [by white Anglo-Saxons, of course] but fails to explain which “nations” emerged first or suggest the possibility that each of these “nations” was inhabited by Americans who emigrated multiple times during their life and who were influenced by cultural characteristics across regions of the country. In failing to provide a chronological context for his study, Woodard essentially uses each region’s cultural context during the period of “establishment” [the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries] to explain contemporary political problems without explaining changes in politics, economics, or demographics from roughly the antebellum period to the present. Plus, his descriptions and geographical placements for some of these “nations” are outright awful.

Take, for example, “The Midlands.”  Woodard says the following about this “nation”:

America’s great swing region was founded by English Quakers, who believed in humans’ inherent goodness and welcomed people of many nations and creeds to their utopian colonies like Pennsylvania on the shores of Delaware Bay. Pluralistic and organized around the middle class, the Midlands spawned the culture of Middle America and the Heartland, where ethnic and ideological purity have never been a priority, government has been seen as an unwelcome intrusion, and political opinion has been moderate. An ethnic mosaic from the start—it had a German, rather than British, majority at the time of the Revolution—it shares the Yankee belief that society should be organized to benefit ordinary people, though it rejects top-down government intervention.

If you look at Missouri on the map above, you’ll notice that “The Midlands” covers most of the Northwestern part of state before making a stretch along the Missouri River to St. Louis. In making this distinction, Woodard purports to explain the founding of St. Louis and a good chunk of the Missouri Region as the creation of utopian-minded English Quakers. Nothing could be further from the truth. The first white settlers to St. Louis were Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau, two men of French descent who named the city after King Louis IX in 1764. Shortly after French discovery, the area west of the Mississippi River was assumed by New Spain. This land was later transferred back to the French in 1800 before Napoleon Bonaparte sold it as a part of the 1803 Louisiana Purchase. Long before these white men came, Mississippian culture thrived in the area thanks to maize-based agricultural production and a strong trading network.

From 1764 to roughly the Jacksonian Era (1828-1836), St. Louis was a pluralistic society largely composed of French, Spanish, and American Indian cultures. Emigrants from Woodard’s “Tidewater” and “Greater Appalachia” areas also came around the turn of the nineteenth century. Starting in the 1830s immigrants from Woodard’s “Yankeedom” region emigrated, as did Irish and German immigrants (the latter especially so after the failed revolutions of 1848). Therefore in no way was there any type of German “majority” at the time of American Revolution, nor were there many British people to speak of. In fact, St. Louis (and all of Missouri by extension) was such a melting pot during the antebellum years that debates still rage about Missouri’s identity. Is it Midwestern? Is it Southern? Northern? “Tidewater Appalachia New France Yankeedom”? Additionally, how do you account for Missouri and Kansas engaging in bloody conflict during the 1850s if these areas are largely composed of the same people? Some “nation,” eh? (If you want to read more about St. Louis’s cultural identity, read James Neal Primm and the beginning of Louis Gerteis‘ work on the Civil War in St. Louis).

Woodard is correct that “the original North American colonies were settled by people from distinct regions.” He is also correct that America has developed several unique regional identities (and not just North, South, and West). But to suggest that these regions were actually autonomous “nations . . . developed in isolation from one another” through bland generalizations that have little chronological order and without acknowledging any cultural agency of non-white Americans–only to conclude that Americans can’t agree on gun regulations today–is silly. Even the whole argument about a contemporary “divided nation” with deep ideological divisions is a myth, with roughly 70-80% of the American population falling into a centrist/moderate camp politically, according to Morris P. Fiorina.

Woodard qualifies his “nation” descriptions by stating that “my observations refer to the dominant culture, not the individual inhabitants, of each region.” I can appreciate this distinction. Again, there are certainly cultural differences in various regions of the United States. But as my St. Louis example shows, Woodard can’t even get “the dominant culture” right. Rather than working to show historical change over time, Woodard bends the past suit his present day agenda.

Rant over.

What do you think of this map? I’ve stated my opinions, but I’m open to different perspectives.


The Grand Army of the Republic, the American Legion, and Armistice Day

Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,
Confederate Civil War Veterans in 1929. Photo Credit: Stones River National Battlefield,

This morning I came across an interesting post from Elizabeth Goetsch of History and Interpretation on Veterans Day. She talks about National Park sites and social media for a while before showing a Facebook update from Stones River National Battlefield, a National Park that posted a picture of former Confederates reuniting in 1929 on Veterans day. Underneath the photo a caption reads “we join the rest of the country in paying, ‘appropriate homage to the veterans of all its wars who have contributed so much to the preservation of this Nation’.” Such a caption puzzles me considering the fact that Confederates fought for a cause distinctly at odds with the idea of “preserving the Nation.” Nevertheless, Elizabeth’s post got me thinking about Civil War veterans and their symbolic relationship with Veterans Day.

In my research of Indiana’s Civil War veterans who joined the Grand Army of the Republic, I discovered that tensions existed between the GAR and the American Legion, a fraternal organization composed of World War I veterans which formed in 1919 and still exists today (and is now also open to women). I don’t want to give away too much information because I address several questions about these tensions in my yet-to-be-published Master’s thesis, but I think part of the these disagreements emerged thanks to the GAR’s membership standards. From its inception in 1866, GAR veterans vowed that their organization would die with the last living Union veteran. Confederate veterans were of course banned from membership, but equally significant was the notion that future members of the United States military–those who would later fight in defense of the country in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Great War–were also banned from membership. As an 1880 GAR almanac asserts (pages 26-30), the fight to defend to the Union and abolish slavery was the GAR’s legacy, a legacy that was jealously guarded by its members. Even if future soldiers went to off to battle in defense of the country, there was only one group of veterans that saved the union and brought about emancipation.

This brief history of Veterans Day cites President Woodrow Wilson, who proclaimed in November 1919 that “to us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory.” This statement begs a question: why did the end of World War I bring about the creation of a new holiday for veterans when the nation already had Memorial Day, a day for those who died in combat? If November 11 was to be a day for solemn pride for those who died in the country’s service, then what future role would Memorial Day play in America’s commemorative landscape? Was it now necessary to have two days dedicated to the American dead? I have little evidence to back this claim, but I wonder if Veterans Day (called Armistice Day at the time) was a concerted effort by World War I veterans and political leaders of postwar America to assert their own distinct form of remembrance within America’s commemorative landscape, away from the GAR.

When GAR members began holding Memorial Day commemorations in 1868, veterans took ownership of May 30 and called it “their holiday.” Did American Legion veterans speak the same of Armistice Day on November 11? I don’t know, but I’d like to see a future historical study analyze the relationship between the GAR and the American Legion in the early twentieth century. Such a study may present new questions about the various ways in which veterans of different wars make sense of their past and choose to commemorate their time in battle.

Cheers and have a great Veteran’s Day

Is “A People’s History” Useful for Classroom Instruction?

Last week, the Washington Post blared this provocative headline about a recent story on its website:

Socialist history curriculum strides toward Philadelphia schools

The comments section of this article was littered with comments that had nothing to do with socialist history, Philadelphia, or public education. Commentors shared a range of beliefs, including the idea that academics live in fantasy worlds that don’t mirror the realities of society, that President Obama is a communist, and that the real victims of racism today are white people. What was it that caused all of this commotion? Why are people so angry? Why does a story about public education provoke so many questions about the larger society in which educational institutions are operated?

The catalyst for all of this was an announcement from city council members in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, declaring that socialist historian Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States: 1492 to the Present would be allowed for use in Philadelphia public school history classrooms. The book-which purports to tell the history of America from the perspective of “America’s women, factory workers, African-Americans, Native Americans, working poor, and immigrant laborers”-was deemed by city council members as necessary in order to “recognize the need for students to be taught an unvarnished, honest version of U.S. history that empowers students to differentiate between moments that have truly made our country great versus those that established systemic inequality, privilege, and prejudice which continue to reinforce modern society’s most difficult issues.” The book still needs to be approved by the District Superintendent and school board, but the fact that Zinn’s book has gotten this far is notable.

What has happened in Philadelphia is important on its own merits, but it takes on a new significance when placed within the context of what has recently happened here in Indiana, where it was recently reported that former Governor Mitch Daniels wrote emails to former Education Superintendent Tony Bennett and other state education leaders calling for the outright banning of A People’s History from all Indiana classrooms. Daniels remarked in one email shortly after Zinn’s 2008 death that “this terrible anti-American academic has finally passed away. The obits and commentaries mentioned his book ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is the ‘textbook of choice in high schools and colleges around the country.’ It is a truly execrable, anti-factual piece of disinformation that misstates American history on every page. Can someone assure me that is not in use anywhere in Indiana? If it is, how do we get rid of it before more young people are force-fed a totally false version of our history?”

Notwithstanding Daniels’ charges against Zinn’s book, the emails raised serious questions about academic freedom and government censorship in the classroom (even more disturbing has been the discovery that this is not the first time such an effort at censorship has taken place. See here and here). The American Historical Association condemned Daniels’ actions, stating that “attempts to single out particular texts for suppression from a school or university curriculum have no place in a democratic society.” “Read-In” presentations have taken place at Indiana schools throughout the state, including a “Zinn Read-In” at IUPUI this past Monday.

Some historians dismiss A People’s History and have lamented its lack of footnotes and reliance on secondary sources (see, for example, Sam Wineburg’s critique here). I’ve never read Zinn’s history book before, so I cannot comment on the merits of the book as a useful classroom resource with regards to scholarly content. However, even if we acknowledge the possibility that Zinn’s book makes problematic interpretations (and again, this is merely hypothetical), aren’t there possibilities for important learning outcomes through the use of A People’s History? I think there are two effective ways to use the book in a classroom:

1. If there’s one memory many adults have of their experiences in history classrooms growing up, it’s the worn-out story of the teacher who dutifully lectured fact-based content from a single history textbook. Good teaching inspires students to understand history not as a singular and static narrative, but a series of multiple and ever-changing narrative(s) with a range of perspectives. Howard Zinn undoubtedly brings a perspective of history that many American students are not acquainted with. Pairing Zinn’s book with another history textbook could challenge students to view history as a landscape of contested narratives.

2. If a teacher in Philadelphia thinks Zinn’s book is terrible, they could still use the book as an example of poor historical thinking. When I refer to “historical thinking,” I refer to the idea of students acknowledging that people in past societies thought, viewed, heard, and understood the world differently that us today (“the past is a foreign country”). Perhaps Zinn’s book reflects “presentism,” the act of inserting present-day political concerns into the actions of past historical actors. If it does, then students should learn how to avoid “presentism” so they can develop a sharper cognition for historical thinking. As I’ve stated before, far too many middle and high school history classes focus on content at the sacrifice of process. Why not use Zinn to teach students about historical method and process? Students need to learn about good and bad history, right?

In 2003, Joseph Moreau wrote a fine history of American history textbooks used in public schools, arguing that debates over history textbooks reflect larger disagreements about contemporary politics: “What sort of national identity should schools foster . . . Do competing versions our past . . . threaten our national unity?” If I buy Howard Zinn’s book for my library, I do so for my own personal reasons, whether for pleasure, learning, or both. If a school administrator or politician picks a book for reading in the history classroom, however, that person conveys a powerful message to students about their understanding of the world and what they consider important for the student to learn. “National soul-searching,” argues Moreau, “has always played out through textbooks, especially those purporting to explain the country’s past” (16). Whether written by Howard Zinn, Eric Foner, or Bill Bennett, public school history textbooks will make arguments and present perspectives about the past that may be unsettling to some. Rather than trying to censor these works, we should promote academic freedom and encourage our students to think critically about the weak and strong points made in these arguments. More perspectives-not less-will help our students decipher good historical thinking from bad. A democratic society functions much better when more questions (not less) are asked of those who purport to represent themselves as the chroniclers of our past, regardless of their views. Looking to the future, I can only hope that efforts to censor history in public education are avoided at all costs.


Highlights from the National Trust for Historic Preservation Annual Conference

From October 29 to November 3 (today) the National Trust for Historic Preservation has been holding its annual conference right here in Indianapolis. I was able to secure a scholarship to attend the conference for free (thank you IUPUI!) and I tried to attend as many different sessions as possible while still making time for school work. I am not an expert on historic preservation, but wow, every session I attended was amazing. I met a lot of people from around the country and was quite impressed by the variety of jobs these historic preservationists held. I came out of the conference having a much better understanding of what historic preservationists do and I could definitely see myself working in this field if the opportunity arises. Ultimately, I learned that historic preservation is more than preserving buildings; it’s about the preservation of stories, people, and communities too.

Here are some highlights, thoughts, and interesting points I learned while at the conference. I still don’t know a lot of the lingo behind historic preservation, so please forgive me for speaking in rather general terms:

  • On Wednesday, October 30 I had the opportunity to work with my friends at the Indiana State House (where I used to work) and help run a field session/tour that started at the Birch Bayh Federal Building and U.S. Courthouse and eventually made its way to the State House. The Federal Building was completed in 1905 and was also the main post office of Indianapolis when first completed. In 1974 the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. Amidst the Great Recession of 2008 federal stimulus money was used to renovate the building, which provided employment to many laborers in and around the area who had either been laid off or had their hours cut.
  • When the field session moved to the Indiana State House, we heard former Indiana Supreme Court Chief Justice Randall Shepard speak about efforts to preserve the Indiana Supreme Court Room back to its original design. Starting around 2002 (if I remember correctly) federal funds were given to the state to undertake this work. Shepard talked about some of the challenges associated with the restoration, especially the strict scrutiny given to the project by some taxpayers. Sometimes preservation efforts are not readily appreciated by the public, who would rather see tax funds spent for other purposes. Being clear about the project’s purpose and the potential benefits of such work, argued Shepard, is integral to teaching the public about the importance of preservation.
  • On Thursday, October 31 I attended a rainy field session on reviving urban neighborhood centers. We traveled to various parts of Indianapolis, including Fountain Square, Irvington, 10th Street, and Massachusetts Avenue. Throughout the tour I was continually struck by the devastating impact of de-industrialization in Indianapolis, which started in the 1970s and has continued to this day. For example, a Ford automotive plant and a factory that made Duracell Batteries on East Washington Street have both shut their doors in recent years, leading to the loss of more than 10,000 jobs on this street alone. East Indianapolis has also suffered from some of the worst rates of foreclosure in the country thanks to de-industrialization, predatory lending, and the 2008 Great Recession. The best way to preserve a historic building is to find new tenants for it, but developing new uses for these buildings  has been a challenge for preservationists in the area. Thankfully, a program called the Super Bowl Legacy Initiative brought some much needed funds following the 2012 Super Bowl, and it appears as if these funds are being used for good purposes.
  • I was also struck by the number of abandoned theaters throughout the city that I saw on the tour. During the twentieth century, Indianapolis was actually well-known for its theaters. However, as the jobs went, so did the theaters. Some of these theaters have been restored as music venues (see, for example, the Murat Theater), but many are still completely abandoned. I would be really interested to read a historical study that analyzed changes in theater and fine arts in conjunction with changes in the built landscapes of the surrounding communities of these theaters.
  • I attended three sessions on Friday, October 1 and live-tweeted so many interesting points to #PresConf that my phone ran out of juice before the end of the day. All three sessions were excellent, but the first one (“preservation as a meaningful tool for addressing community change”) was really striking. Matt Cole and Jason Berry of Chicago and Michael Allen of St. Louis did a great job of reinforcing the importance of moving the historic preservation discussion from districts, tax codes, and the history of neighborhood creators to discussions about the people who currently live in these historic neighborhoods, which are often riddled with crime and poverty. Jason Berry summed this up by stating, “I love good windows, but things happen.” The job of Historic Preservationists is to help local communities handle change and address questions that are important to the community, not to act as community spokespersons or deciders of the future.
  • Another session entitled “Cocktails, Coloring Books, and Cyber Space” provided new strategies for educating local communities about historic preservation efforts. Members of the Landmark Society of Western New York outlined three innovative ideas they are experimenting with to try and raise awareness in Rochester, New York, and the surrounding areas. One (“Cocktails”) involves using drink coasters with QR codes at local historic drinking establishments that lead to LSWNY’s website. The others (“Coloring Books” and “Cyber Space”) are geared towards children and families. “The Littlest Preservationist” is a coloring book addressed for children, while the computer game “Historical Friction” challenges students to envision preservation efforts from the perspectives of both preservationists and developers. The site will be up and running in the spring of 2014. While LSWNY acknowledged that these initiatives are in their experimental phase and that the takeaways and outcomes from these educational initiatives is a bit murky, the goal at this point is to get kids looking around and thinking more about the built environment in their local area. I think these ideas are great and I look forward to seeing how these initiatives work out in the future.

Click on the gallery below to see some pictures I took during the conference.