Public History, Social Media, and the Importance of Place in Shaping Meaningful Dialogue

The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience is an organization dedicated to commemorating difficult histories throughout the world. They have done much work in recent years to reshape the field of interpretation with groundbreaking initiatives that place facilitated dialogue front and center in public history programs, and I’ve had the privilege of taking several training courses with ICSC over the past year. I’m a big fan of ICSC and their mission.

The training I received focused on facilitating dialogue at National Parks. In the most recent course I took it was reinforced repeatedly that place is an extremely important element in fostering good conversation; where the dialogue takes place is as important as the topic under discussion. A nineteenth century farm owned by a German-American resident opens up an avenue for discussing immigration to the United States today, whereas if that farm was cultivated by slave labor it could open a different conversation about race or slavery. I took that point to heart at the time, but it was reinforced today after flipping through ICSC’s Facebook page. To commemorate Black History Month, ICSC reached out to a number of different history museums this week asking them to pose a question on their page about race and civil rights in the United States. While this attempt to start a meaningful online dialogue came from a place of good intentions, few followers of the page (which number more than 3,000) chose to engage in the discussion, and the comments that did come were…interesting:

Sites of Conscience Troll

While it’s perfectly valid to ask where the numbers came from for this post, we can also see a troublesome Ben Stein approach to discussing racism which implies that any desire to discuss race or racism in American society is itself a racist act. More broadly the place where this discussion occurred–Facebook–presents a serious barrier to partaking in a meaningful dialogue about this topic. While public historians over the past twenty-five years have embraced the “shared authority” paradigm as a way of including visitors and communities in the creation of history exhibits in museums and other educational programs, I think we continue to struggle with how to put the shared authority paradigm into practice within the world of online websites and social media outlets because they are places we still haven’t figured out yet. Fellow public historian Elizabeth Catte even wonders if shared authority will be around much longer given that many digital audiences use platforms like comment sections for the sole purpose of trolling and being confrontational with others.

A few years ago my local paper decided to get rid of its own internal comment section (which allowed people to post anonymously) and instead outsource this task to Facebook so that all commenters had to post from their personal accounts. The prevailing belief among the paper’s editorial staff was that people would be inclined to tone down their hurtful rhetoric if they had to post something with their name attached to it. That of course never happened, and just about any hot-button issue you read about in this paper will be accompanied by confirmation bias, insulting and racist comments, off-topic rants, silly memes, and much more.

Can we ever get beyond “don’t read the comments!” in internet discourse? While Facebook proclaims itself as a place for making and maintaining relationships with people, the sheer size of the platform and the still relatively easy path for creating a sense of anonymity creates an emotional distance that leads some people to say hurtful things and manufacture outrage at the smallest slight or perceived issue. I gave up trying to have conversations there about politics or current events a long time ago because it was obvious that even people I considered to be great friends would have no qualms about posting rude comments towards me because my views didn’t meet their standards of ideological purity.

The biggest problem I see with a group like ICSC trying to hold a facilitated dialogue on Facebook is that there is no mechanism to establish boundaries and guidelines for maintaining a productive conversation besides deleting comments after they’ve been posted. Facilitated dialogue is premised on the idea that participants seek to gain a better understand of each other and different perspectives rather than trying to convince others of any particular viewpoint, so in that regard the medium is fairly open-ended in terms of content. But dialogue without any regulations is essentially an unproductive newspaper comments section. Directing Facebook users to a moderated space within ICSC’s website could be more productive than trying to host the conversation on Facebook itself. A set of rules on the organization’s website asking all participants to respect each other, put a check their on biases and assumptions, listen to others, and consent to these standards before commenting could provide a useful mechanism for advancing important conversations. It would be no different than providing a disclaimer page similar to the one on this website. My idea is not perfect and I don’t think anyone has really figured out how to make the internet a more civil place, but it’s the start of a much larger conversation we need to have about sharing (or perhaps moderating) authority on the internet when it comes to interpreting the stuff of history.

What do you think?


Talking About Museums, National Parks, and Diverse Publics

Last night I had an opportunity to speak to Dr. Jeff Manuel’s history students at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville about working for the National Park Service and interpreting history to many publics. The talk went better than I could have ever expected. The students were extremely interested in what I had to say and had many thought-provoking questions to throw my way. I also got to listen to a very fascinating discussion the students held about a project they are working on to commemorate the life of Robert Prager, a German coal miner living in Collinsville, Illinois, who was lynched in 1918 amid a wave of World War I anti-German hysteria sweeping the United States. The students discussed questions over the most useful medium for interpreting this story (historical marker, digital website, pamphlets, a documentary, etc.), what audiences they wanted to address, what tone they wanted to take (a factual recollection of the event vs. a broader interpretation of politics and violence both then and now), and what guiding questions they would utilize to inform their interpretations going forward. It was all a lot of fun.

My talk was pretty straightforward and focused on the philosophical beliefs about public history that I embrace for the work that I do with the Park Service on a daily basis. I discussed the need for understanding the importance of communicating to multiple audiences, Deborah Perry’s Knowledge Hierarchy educational framework for meeting people where they are in their learning journey, my wish to get rid of all mission statements in museums, and my “three-legged stool” for good public history work: strong historical content knowledge, an understanding of interpretive methods, and a system for evaluating interpretive programs and visitor takeaways. I also gave the students a copy of the facilitated dialogue I used when all 8th graders from the Ferguson/Florissant School District visited the park last May (I’ll discuss this facilitated dialogue more in-depth on this website next month).

I’ve been working full-time for the National Park Service for close to two years at this point, and in that time I’ve observed a slow but evolving view on visitor interaction within some parks. Most parks, mine included, still employ “sage on the stage”-type activities like ranger-led tours of historical homes or battlefields. I think that’s totally fine and don’t see those activities going away anytime soon. But I do see a growing push to also employ “guide by the side”-type activities like facilitated dialogue that make connections to the present and, most importantly, give visitors a chance to share their own perspectives with each other and NPS staff so that all involved are simultaneously students and teachers in a shared learning experience. I think my Ferguson dialogue accomplished that, and it seems like our current staff at the park is receptive to trying that sort of thing again in the future.

There are certainly challenges with doing facilitated dialogues both logistically (time and space) and theoretically (connections between past and present are always contentious, some people aren’t interested in dialogue, historical facts and content could possibly take a back seat to personal opinions, biases, and assumptions, etc.), but I fully embrace dialogue as an effective learning method at public history sites. Some of my favorite public history initiatives, such as Connor Prarie’s “Follow the North Star” program, effectively use both historical knowledge and facilitated dialogue in conjunction with each other to spark visitors’ understanding of history and how it plays a role in our daily lives. These are the sorts of programs I would like to see at more public history sites across the country in the future.


Bad Historical Thinking: “History is Written By the Victors”

One of the most unfortunate and widely-accepted ideas about historical thinking is that “history is written by the victors.” This talking point asserts that the truth of the past is not shaped by reasoned interpretive historical scholarship or a factual understanding of the past, but by the might of political and cultural leaders on the “winning” side of history; the “winners” have the power to shape historical narratives through school textbooks, public iconography, movies, and a range of other mediums. To be sure, these mediums are powerful venues for establishing political ideologies and shaping personal assumptions about the way the world works. And it’s definitely true that governmental or “official” entities can and do exploit this power to achieve their own ends. In his book Remaking America: Public Memory, Commemoration, and Patriotism in the Twentieth Century, historian John Bodnar discusses the concept of “official cultural expressions” that aim to shape how people remember the past. These expressions originate from social leaders and official authorities who seek to shape society’s historical understanding in ways that promote “social unity, the continuity of existing institutions, and loyalty to the status quo” (13). In other words, those in power have an interest in maintaining their power, and a “useable past” that conforms to their vision of present-day conditions can function as a strong tool in upholding their status.

It is a mistake, however, to assume that only the “winners” of history have the power to manipulate the past to attain their present-day goals. This is especially the case in an age where the internet wields enormous potential for a person from any walk of life to build a powerful platform for spouting their beliefs and opinions. We must do away with this fiction that history is only written by the winners.

(I know that “Winners” is a vague and ill-defined term in this context, but I will set aside any long-winded attempt at a definition for this post).

There may be no stronger example of “losers” writing widely accepted historical narratives than those who have advocated for the Lost Cause interpretation of the American Civil War. The central argument of the Lost Cause, of course, is that the Confederacy was morally and constitutionally right in their efforts to secede from the United States. But loss is central to Lost Cause theory in that many of its advocates argue that the Confederacy was doomed from the very beginning of the war since United States forces had superior resources and military forces to overwhelm them. Although the historical reality demonstrates that there were several instances during the war when it appeared the Confederacy was on the brink of victory, the narrative power of young men patriotically putting their lives on the line for a doomed yet noble cause still appeals to a great number of Americans today.

In the years after the Civil War, Lost Cause advocates grabbed their pens and their pocketbooks in an effort to win the memory battle over the meaning of the nation’s bloodiest conflict. In 1866 Confederate General Daniel Harvey Hill established The Land We Love, a magazine that glorified Southern literature, agrarianism, and provided a platform for Confederate veterans to publish their reminiscences of battle. From 1884 to 1887 the popular Century Magazine published its famous Battles and Leaders of the Civil War, which included lengthy articles from both United States and Confederate military leaders about the war. Former Confederate political leaders like Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens wrote autobiographies and histories of the Confederacy that reflected their version of events. Many history textbooks in schools throughout the country, but especially those in former Confederate states, taught a Lost Cause version of the war that glorified the Confederacy. Later on a number of motion picture films like Birth of A Nation and Gone With the Wind further extended the Lost Cause’s reach. And for roughly fifty years (1880-1930) countless millions of dollars were spent through both donations and public tax revenues to support the erection of monuments glorifying the Confederacy all across the South (and elsewhere, I’m sure).

All of these expressions of memory and historical interpretation were readily accepted by many if not most white Americans all over the country after the war. The “Losers” succeeded in writing a history that gained popular acceptance in American society. And the Lost Cause interpretation of the war is readily available for those looking to study it today. Anyone can go online and read Davis, Stephens, and many other Lost Cause materials on Google Books or HathiTrust. Anyone can find the Declarations of Secession written by the various Southern states that chose to explain their reasoning for embracing disunion.

History is written by everybody, not just the “winners.” It’s true that there have been times in history when “official narratives” aimed to eradicate alternate historical interpretations that didn’t fully conform to the desires of those in power. But the bigger point that is equally true is that historical counter-narratives always exist to subvert “victors” history, both orally and in print. “History is written by the victors” is a lazy argument that is usually deployed in the absence of historical evidence to defend claims about the past. This is why it was so ironic to me when I heard the complaint that “history is written by the victors” when the city of New Orleans decided to take down their Confederate statues in December. Clearly that’s not a true statement once you see how former Confederates and their supporters succeeded in shaping NOLA’s commemorative landscape for more than 150 years following the end of the Civil War.


President Ulysses S. Grant and the West Point Controversy of 1870

Fredrick Dent Grant (1850-1912). Photo Credit: Wikipedia
Fredrick Dent Grant (1850-1912). Photo Credit: Wikipedia

During the initial phases of Reconstruction, social reformers and advocates for black rights in the United States began calling for the West Point Military Academy to become racially integrated. Looking back at these developments, historian William McFeely wondered aloud in the 1980s why so much effort was exerted to integrate West Point in the years after the Civil War since it was, according to him, “perhaps the last place to look for democracy.” But the desire of blacks to enlist at West Point at this time does make sense. Nearly 200,000 African Americans joined United States Colored Troops regiments during the Civil War, and these efforts to defend the country in a time of need had played an integral role in postwar debates over the status of black rights in a newly reconstructed country. Amid the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments giving all native-born Americans the right of citizenship and all men regardless of color the right to vote, black men looked to postwar military opportunities to demonstrate their heightened presence in American society and establish stable careers for themselves.

The first black cadet accepted to West Point arrived in 1870. James Webster Smith was the man chosen for this task. A former South Carolina slave born in 1850, Smith garnered attention at an early age for his intellectual abilities and strong character, and a Connecticut philanthropist named David Clark eagerly used his wealth and influence to help Smith graduate high school and start a university education at the newly-established Howard University in Washington, D.C. During his time at Howard, South Carolina Congressman Solomon L. Hoge nominated Smith to attend West Point. Unfortunately for Smith, the West Point establishment–from the lowest cook to Cadet Commandant Emory Upton–were hostile to his presence there. After years of racial harassment and physical violence towards him, Smith was formally discharged from West Point in 1874 after Philosophy professor Peter S. Michie defied previous school custom and gave Smith a private examination. Michie declared that Smith had failed the exam and had “displayed a marked deficiency in deductive reasoning” which, in conjunction with prior claims against Smith’s character, established suitable grounds for his dismissal. Smith returned to his native South Carolina and taught mathematics and military tactics at what is now South Carolina State University, but he tragically died in 1876 at the age of 26 after a bout with tuberculosis. He was buried in Columbia, South Carolina, in an unmarked grave, and no one today knows the location of that grave.

The aforementioned historian William McFeely offers the most comprehensive analysis of Smith’s time at West Point in his Pulitzer Prize-winning but largely negative biography of Ulysses S. Grant. McFeely and subsequent historians have laid the primary blame for Smith’s mistreatment at West Point on President Grant for his failure to publicly speak out against these wrongdoings and Cadet Fredrick Dent Grant–eldest son of Ulysses and Julia Grant and a member of West Point’s Class of 1871–for allegedly being a ringleader in Smith’s harassment. I recently went back through McFeely’s biography and the Papers of Ulysses S. Grant to learn more about Ulysses and Fred’s roles in the Smith affair. I discovered that McFeely actually bungled some of the documentary evidence connecting Fred to any particular harassment against Smith, but I do concur with him that President Grant could and should have done more in his capacity as Commander in Chief and former General of the Army to stop the discrimination against Smith.

President Grant found himself in a number of difficult political situations when it came to West Point. Fred’s class of 1871 was a particularly unremarkable graduation class that often found itself in trouble with the academy’s leadership, much to the concern of President Grant, who hesitated to take any action that might suggest executive overreach or favoritism towards his son. Moreover, McFeely argues somewhat convincingly that Grant’s public comments one way or the other towards Smith’s harassment may have had limited influence on West Point’s daily culture anyway. “The place was impregnable to thought of any kind,” according to McFeely, and “his word would have penetrated neither mind nor heart” (376). Damned if you do, damned if you don’t, apparently.

Smith’s harassment started immediately upon his arrival in 1870. That summer, cadets hurled racial epitaphs towards him and forced him to eat his meals at a separate table from the white cadets. Smith wrote a letter that June to his benefactor David Clark stating that the going was tough and that “these fellows appear to be trying their utmost to run me off.” Clark published this letter in a local paper to draw attention to Smith’s plight, and a court of inquiry found that the son of General Quincy Adams Gilmore and a nephew of Secretary of War William Belknap–among other cadets (but not Fred Grant)–were guilty of harassing Smith and subject to reprimands, but no punishment. Later in the fall Smith and another white cadet got into a physical altercation that led to another court of inquiry, this time led by General Oliver Otis Howard, a well-known supporter of black rights and the namesake of Howard University. Smith testified without counsel in the case and was successfully exonerated of any wrongdoing in January 1871. The harassment against Smith continued, however, and he was soon arrested after keeping his head down while marching. A third court martial came, this time overseen by Secretary Belknap (no friend to blacks and an unfortunate pick by President Grant to oversee the case). Belknap–with Grant’s support–was willing to pardon Smith, but only on the condition that he be held back a year to join the class of 1875. The former abolitionist Lewis Tappan, outraged at this ruling, offered to pay for Smith to leave West Point and attend a university in New England, but Smith refused. He endured for several more years at West Point until he failed Professor Michie’s “test.”

The nature of Frederick Dent Grant’s relationship to James Webster Smith and his role in the harassment towards Smith are hard to determine conclusively. McFeely claims that Fred led a “conspiracy” among white cadets to blackball Smith out of the academy and that “there was considerable evidence to suggest that he was an active participant in the ceaseless harassment of James Smith” (376). This is where McFeely screws up, however, because the evidence he employs to assert Fred’s racism actually comes from an entirely separate incident in 1870 involving a number of white cadets that Smith was never involved with. In that incident a group of senior cadets grabbed several white freshman cadets from their dorms and threw them out in the freezing cold to shiver in their underwear overnight. In a January 1871 investigation of the matter Fred testified to the Committee on Military Affairs that he was aware of the prank, that he supported it, and that he did nothing to stop it. McFeely conflates Fred’s testimony from this case with the separate court martial cases against Smith to make it look like he was aware of and supported Smith’s harassment. In actuality, Fred never testified in Smith’s cases nor admitted any role in his harassment.

Another claim against Fred that you will find on his Wikipedia page is that during a meeting between President Grant and David Clark in the summer of 1870 about Smith’s status in the academy, he exclaimed that “the time had not come to send colored boys to West Point” and that “no damned nigger will ever graduate from West Point.” But the source of this quote came from a letter Smith wrote four years after the meeting, and Smith himself was not present at that meeting. Added to this fact is a letter Clark wrote to Sayles J. Bowen in 1872 in which he reported that Fred “said [at the meeting that] he had never spoken to Cadet Smith, nor had he any knowledge of any indignities heaped upon him, though he had heard about them. He said he should take neither one side nor the other in the quarrel, if one existed. He thought that it was premature to admit colored cadets at this time.” That’s quite different from what Smith reports in his later letter, leaving me to question whether Smith’s letter is a reliable source for understanding Fred’s role in this situation. Added to the complexity is that Fred himself never commented on the Smith case at any time later in his life.

To conclude: James Webster Smith’s courageous effort to racially integrate West Point and become the first African American graduate of the academy was marred by racist acts of harassment and violence towards him by fellow white cadets and apathetic indifference to stop it among the academy’s leadership and even President Grant himself. Although Grant claimed in his 1870 meeting with Clark that he supported Smith’s enrollment in West Point and vowed to protect him, his failure to make any public statements in support of Smith or against the harassment, and his appointment of prejudicial figures like Belknap to oversee Smith’s case represent a failure of leadership and a negative mark on his presidency. While other military figures like Upton, Belknap, and Howard deserve criticism for not doing more to protect Smith, it seems that Grant bears ultimate responsibility because even one public statement from him could have influenced public opinion and potentially pushed West Point into action. That he failed to do so is unfortunate to say the least. Even though McFeely’s interpretation of Frederick Dent Grant’s alleged racism at West Point has been largely accepted as gospel within the historical community, the available evidence against him is actually very shaky and unreliable. We simply don’t know a lot about Fred’s role in Smith’s harassment. But we can safely conclude that he was largely indifferent to the situation, did little to nothing as a senior cadet to offer support to Smith, and that he probably did hold some sort of racial prejudice against African Americans and their attending West Point. Ultimately both father and son could have taken a more proactive approach to protecting Smith’s welfare while at the academy.


Addendum: See The Papers of Ulysses S. Grant, Volume 21, pages 28-34 and 140-141 for the primary source documents I have cited in this blog post.

Print Books Still Play an Important Role in Learning Experiences

By User:David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, User:Jorge Ryan, and User:ZX95 - File:Uncut book p1190369.jpg , File:Used books 001.jpg , and File:Austria - Admont Abbey Library - 1407.jpg, CC BY-SA 3.0,
Photo Credit: Wikipedia, David Monniaux, flickr user 007 Tanuki, and Jorge Ryan.

In my time blogging at Exploring the Past I’ve gone on a sort of mini-crusade against conventional understandings within popular media about millennials’ relationship to digital technology and the ways they acquire knowledge. See here, here, and here for examples. Common arguments in this discourse include the belief that millennials acquire knowledge about the world in fundamentally different ways than older people; that old, conventional mediums of learning such as reading books or visiting museums are of little interest to millennials; and that we educators must fundamentally overhaul our approach to working with young students. We must embrace “disruption” in order to unlock the potential of young people. In the teaching world you might hear about the incorporation of digital technology in the form of iPads, computers, and ebooks as a way of making classes more hands-on and interactive, whereas in the public history world you might hear some vague jargon-y gobbledygook about “engagement” or “meeting the needs of a new generation” to get them to visit museums, National Parks, and the like.

I don’t buy into the “disruption” hype that says we must dismantle everything and that we must completely do away with books, textbooks, or lectures (although I agree that educators can and do abuse the lecture medium to their students detriment). The logic of “disruption” fits into a long history of what one scholar describes as “giddy prophecies” about new developments in media technology. Thomas Edison predicted in 1922 that “the motion picture is destined to revolutionize our educational system and . . . in a few years it will supplant largely, if not entirely, the use of textbooks.” Similar prophecies have been uttered in recent years about floppy disks, CD-ROMS, and computers.

Well, it turns out that at least a few traditional educational mediums are resilient. A forthcoming study by linguistics professor Naomi Baron asserts that 92 percent of students and millennials prefer print books over ebooks, and that print publications still play an integral role in educational classrooms regardless of grade level. It turns out that print publications still have an important educational purpose nearly 100 years after Edison predicted their eventual demise. Furthermore, millennials actually read more than older adults!

Don’t get me wrong: I support the implementation of digital technology in both formal and informal learning environments, but I’ve always believed that such implementations need to be done with an understanding that these mediums are merely tools. They need to be used carefully towards a larger goal of making our students critical thinkers who ask good questions and demonstrate sharp, analytical thinking. If an “interactive” activity doesn’t accomplish these goals, then it’s worthless in my view. Rather than debating whether or not digital technology should play a role in education (it can and should), we need to discuss what approaches with digital tools work and which ones don’t. And again, the end goal is key. I believe Sam Wineburg is mostly correct when he asserts, with regards to the history classroom, that:

I don’t think that a history class should be about things such as . . . making cute posters, or about making history “engaging.” It’s about getting students to think rigorously about the evidence. Fun is okay, but I would rather have them hate the class and come out of the class having the skills needed to be good citizens than having them enjoy themselves.