For many years, public historians have called for an updated version of David Thelen and Roy Rosenzweig’s 1998 book The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life. That book summarized the results of a phone survey of 1,453 Americans from a range of backgrounds who reflected on their relationship with history. Participants in that study were asked how they define history, what value they put on it, and what sources they relied on to generate their understandings of the past.
The American Association for State and Local History (AASLH), the National Council on Public History (NCPH), and the Organization of American Historians (OAH) have recently formed a partnership called “Reframing History.” This partnership is working with FrameWorks to conduct research and update our collective understandings of how people define their relationship with history. This work should be applauded. I was excited to read their recently published report, “Making History Work: From Abstract Truth to Critical Engagement,” when it was published earlier this week. According to the report’s research methods paper, 54 people were interviewed via Zoom and nearly 5,000 people filled out an online survey, tripling the number of respondents who participated in Thelen and Rosenzweig’s 1998 study.
What follows here is a summarization of four recommendations the report makes and some comments I have on these recommendations. Overall I think this report is a useful tool that public history sites should keep on file and discuss among staff that interacts with the public. I certainly look forward to chatting about it with my colleagues. However, I question a number of arguments and assumptions made in the report.
The report argues that history communicators should strive to frame history as an ongoing process of developing critical thinking skills. These skills will help people better participate in contemporary society and promote a better future. The authors suggest that there are popular misconceptions about the purpose of history and the methods historians use to better understand the past. Somewhat controversially (to me, at least), the authors assert that “the reality is that people think of history as a hobby for enthusiasts rather than as something they should be concerned about.”
I disagree strongly with this latter assertion. History is of great interest to many people who are not professionals or don’t consider themselves professionals. The Barnes & Noble history section always gets a lot of traffic, history documentaries get high ratings, and people turn to a wide rage of sources to obtain information about the past. People who consume history often describe themselves as enthusiasts and are certainly concerned about history and the way it is taught. The challenge, to me, is not that people don’t care about history. It’s that new academic historical scholarship is not taken seriously or viewed with suspicion by many of the same enthusiasts who readily consume content on the History Channel or a David McCullough book. Public historians who challenge conventional understandings of the past or attempt to broaden narratives to include new racial, gender, or sexuality perspectives often face potential backlash for their efforts.
Another note with the introduction. One thing that immediately stuck out to me is that this report uses the term “communicators” as opposed to “public historians” or even “history communicators.” I’m sure this term was used in an effort to be inclusive given that not everyone who discusses history with public audiences identifies as a public historian. Fair enough. But as someone who personally identifies as a public historian, I find the term “communicator” awkward. What are we communicating about? We are communicating the stuff of history to public audiences from all different types of backgrounds. Regardless of whether one personally identifies as a historian, that person is a “history communicator” when they work within the realm of public history. Somewhat relatedly, while the list of authors and advisory board members of this report come from impressive backgrounds–including National Park Service sites and history museums–I couldn’t help but wonder how many of these scholars currently communicate with the public on a regular basis about history as a part of their daily work beyond the scope of this report.
The report argues that lay audiences consider the study of history to be an effort by scholars to find one universal, factual “truth” about the past. This truth, once it has been obtained, is definite and unchanging. Anyone who challenges historical “truth” is therefore criticized as being biased, subject, or a “revisionist.” To remedy this popular perception, the authors argue that history communicators should focus on skills-building rather than finding the “truth.” They should avoid talking about “historical truth” and instead help people formulate a “deeper understanding of our society and how it came to be.” Moreover, history communicators should stress the importance of using a variety of methods to study diverse perspectives and forms of evidence. The authors even go so far as to suggest that rather than saying “by studying history, we make sense of the past by collecting, analyzing, and interpreting [historical] stories,” history communicators should say “by studying history, we build critical thinking skills that apply to all aspects of our lives.”
While it is certainly important to stress the methodological benefits of studying history, the teaching of critical thinking skills should not be prioritized at the expense of answering difficult questions people may have about the accuracy of a given historical event. Rather than avoiding discussions about the meaning of “truth,” I would rather expand the idea of “truth” to suggest that multiple truths can coexist simultaneously. By extension, multiple plausible interpretations of a given event can coexist simultaneously. To this point, I think there is real value in what the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience describes as the “four truths of history.” These truths–forensic truth, personal truth, social truth, and healing truth–do a nice job of highlighting the intersection of memory and history in understanding the past. A person may have a memory about the past that they consider the truth. A society may have an understanding of the past that they consider the truth (as expressed through monuments, memorials, and other public iconography). And yet individuals and societies may hold individual and collective truths that don’t fully align with the historical record, which leads to the creation of myths and misinformation about the past. An important part of public history is helping people navigate the intersection of memory, history, and The Past. Avoiding discussions about the meaning of truth seems counterintuitive for any effort to discuss the meaning of history.
The report argues that people view historians as objective journalists who are asked to simply “report the facts.” With this view of history, the historian-journalist dutifully reports past events exactly as they happened. Eyewitness accounts are prioritized as the final word on what happened in the past; efforts by historians to critically analyze, contextualize, or interpret these eyewitness accounts is seen as a potential road to a biased understanding of the past. “The belief that the past can be easily and straightforwardly documented and reported on is connected to the public’s belief that ‘one truth’ about the past is out there waiting to be found,” according to the authors. The best way to work through these misconceptions is to use the metaphor of detective work to describe the historical process (but not the term “detective,” which the authors believe could lead to negative associations with police). The report argues that the detective metaphor is preferred to the journalism metaphor because it better demonstrates the use of sources and methods to provide new understandings of a past event.
The detective metaphor is not a new innovation. Nikki Madel and Bobbie Malone’s 2008 guidebook for k-12 history teachers effectively used the detective metaphor to help teachers explain the purpose of history to their students. Nevertheless I do think it is a useful metaphor and I have used it myself to explain the purpose of history to audiences (although I admit that I don’t see how the term “detective work” does not convey images of law enforcement while the term “detective” does). But it’s worth asking whether the terms “journalist” and “detective” are as opposite as the authors make them out to be. Doesn’t detective work also rely on eyewitnesses? Don’t journalists try to rely on a wide range of sources when conducting research and not simply eyewitness testimony? At the end of the day, aren’t journalists and detectives trying their best to find “one truth about the past . . . out there waiting to be found?”
A different metaphor mentioned in the methods report would be the advancement of medical knowledge. Simply put, nobody wants to receive medical care today using medical knowledge and tools from 1850 or 1950. That doesn’t mean that medical knowledge from 1850 or 1950 isn’t useful. On the contrary, we could learn a lot about what worked and didn’t work by studying medical history from those periods. But ultimately our understanding of medicine is updated as new insights are made and new technological advancements are made. The medicine metaphor is as useful if not more useful than the detective metaphor.
The report argues that non-historians recognize the importance of learning from past mistakes, oftentimes repeating the overly-simplistic Santayana quote about those not knowing history being doomed to repeat it. The authors argue that this knowledge suggests that many people recognize the importance of studying history. However, the authors correctly acknowledge that what it means to reckon with and “move forward” from the past greatly varies from person to person. They suggest that history communicators speak to universal ideals of progress and justice when explaining the significance of history, although they stress that communicators do not need to use these terms explicitly. With this view of history, the authors suggest that history communicators should not simply explain how we’ve gotten to the present, but that an emphasis should be made to highlight how history can create a more just future. The authors argue that framing history as essential to a better world “builds support for dedicating more resources” towards history education in schools, museums, and elsewhere.
In a world where every word is seemingly politicized and even bland terms like “social justice” and “progress” are viewed with scorn in certain quarters, I am skeptical of the pivot towards the future rather than what’s happening here and now. While I certainly believe history can help create a more just future, I am doubtful that such claims will lead to increased resources for history education.
More philosophically, I do not believe history automatically provides a roadmap for a more just world or helps us predict what is going to happen next. Without being overly pessimistic, it seems obvious to me that history proves that the arc of the moral universe does not automatically bend towards justice. I am reminded of what historian Robert Greene III argued on Twitter several years ago. While I don’t have his exact tweets on hand, Greene essentially argued that there will always be new mistakes to be made, unprecedented problems that can’t be solved by studying history, and new challenges that history alone can’t solve. Moreover, those who have a strong knowledge of history (see history and law student Vladimir Putin, for example), are often just as susceptible to making grave, tragic mistakes that negatively harm the world.
Am I opposed to promoting justice and progress? Of course not. But I do feel that the work of public history should be rooted in appreciating the ways history shapes our world today. How we move forward from history and what will happen in the future are questions that cannot be resolved by historians alone.
The report calls for history communicators to use specific, concrete examples to build support for inclusive history. Harkening back to a crucial insight from The Presence of the Past, the authors call for history communicators to emphasize local history when discussing inclusive narratives. This method shows how BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color) made a difference in local communities and will “help ward off abstract worries about the ‘liberal agenda’ of distant elites being imposed at home.”
I thought this recommendation was the strongest of the report and I don’t have many thoughts to add to it.
Discussion of “Critical Race Theory”
The report argues that:
“The recent backlash against ‘critical race theory’ (that is, teaching about systemic racism in schools and universities) is grounded in the assumption that when it comes to history, what matters and counts is the history of white people.”
This is a shortsighted, overly simplistic explanation of “critical race theory” criticisms that does little to advance the conversation forward.
While I have no doubt that racism does play a role for some CRT critics, I would argue that a great number of them are not opposed to having people of color in the history curriculum. They want discussions of Martin Luther King, Jr., but they want a non-controversial version of MLK who expressed his love for the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and not the version of MLK who questioned capitalism, criticized the nation’s involvement in Vietnam, and criticized white moderates for their indifference to racial justice. They want Frederick Douglass as a loyal Republican party member, but not the Douglass who eloquently explained why African Americans did not view the 4th of July as “their” holiday or who believed Abraham Lincoln was “preeminently the white man’s President, entirely devoted to the welfare of white men.” They want examples of minority success that reaffirm notions of American exceptionalism. They want stories that highlight the idea of individual success because any examination of systematic, structural racism (such as slavery, Jim Crow laws, the reservation system, or immigration restrictions based on race and ethnicity) is deemed “critical race theory” in the service of socialism, Marxism, or some other boogyman “ism” that is declared to be at war with American values. In other words, critics of so-called “critical race theory” ground their position not in wanting an all-white history, but in the assumption that what matters and counts are positive individual stories that promote patriotism, nationalism, and loyalty to the United States.
The failure to probe the relationship between participants’ views towards history and their views towards the nation is disappointing given the long history of “patriotic education” in the United States. Since the late 19th century, a central aim of history education has focused on promoting love of country and a belief that America was the shining example of democracy for the rest of the world. In this sense history education was seen as a “practical” study that prepared students to be ready to defend the country in times of need. Much of the anxiety surrounding CRT is rooted in the fact that history education in recent years has aimed to highlight stories of struggle, marginalization, and violence that do not automatically conform to the “patriotic education” model. Therefore critics fear that students are being taught to “hate” their country, when in reality the aim of many history teachers (and public historians) has been to demonstrate how concepts such as freedom, liberty, and democracy have been contested throughout U.S. history, and that this work continues today.
(You can read and download an article I wrote about “patriotic education” below).
In conclusion, I think the spirit of reframing history is much needed, and I think this report will be useful for future public historians. But I was surprised by how often I found myself at odds with some of the central conclusions of the report. I hope future studies can be conducted that take a deeper look at how people conceive of history’s purposes within the context of how they view the purpose of patriotism, nationalism, and the nation-state.