Thursday, March 27, 2008

History, Democracy & the Human Experience

Why is history important? In what ways is it useful? As a public historian and museum professional, I ask these questions constantly. History is often so poorly taught in our schools that whole generations of Americans grow up thinking it is inconsequential. These same citizens later make value judgements regarding education policy, exacerbating the problem. According to a new study commissioned by Common Core, teenagers know less about history than they did 20 years ago. This is in large part due to the poisonous influence of the ill-conceived and much-despised No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. The best critical analysis of NCLB I have read is this speech by past Bank Street president Dr. Augusta Kappner (be warned, the link is a PDF).


The study of history often brings a sense of familiarity, sometimes eerily so. History can demonstrate the consequences of policy decisions - the effects of both strong leadership in times of need and horrifying repression of cultural groups. We gain courage, understanding and compassion from history as we are reminded of the human experience. The lessons found in one's own country of origin are especially useful, because the effects of local and national history can be felt everyday, by every citizen. We need only look to Senator Obama's recent speech to know the truth of that. While some were undoubtedly surprised by this speech, I have been in the center of the storm and know the truth of it. I spent 8 years as a public historian and educator at a plantation museum in the South. I have heard it all.

It is important to learn the whole of history - the good, the bad and the ugly - because it is through understanding the bigger picture that we can find meaning in our own experiences. Patriotism is not believing that everything America does is right and true; patriotism is taking responsibility for your country, both the past and the present, and striving to make it live up to its ideals. It is only by knowing how far we have come that we can draw inspiration for the hard work ahead. By studying the heroic, yet complicated leadership of the past, we can recognize it's equivalent in the present. We are living history and our stories will be studied (one hopes) by future generations. The past is the present is the future.

It is unfortunate that many historic sites have yet to truly realize why history is important. The National Trust Historic Sites weblog touches on this with two recent posts on attendance and relevance . Too often we are mired in the details of "period accurate" room settings, costumes and impressions. We endlessly debate minutiae (can you believe they let their tour guides wear tennis shoes with those costumes?), and yet completely miss the point of why this immersive experience is helpful. Verisimilitude is helpful because it provides context for history; it helps people to understand that humans lived in this environment, with this set of experiences; they shaped and were shaped by these specific cultural norms and issues. You cannot separate a person from their influences, and museums do best when they complete the picture of history by showing those influences clearly. While I could write a book on how we get it wrong, I prefer to list all of the ways we get it right, to inspire all of us to do better and to be better.

The PAPER CLIPS Project at Whitewell Middle School in Whitewell, TN

The most exciting thing about this project was the ways in which lessons of the Holocaust changed an entire community's perception of cultural diversity. This truly exemplifies the promise of history. The link above is to the website for the documentary, which I highly recommend.


I've visited this museum several times and it truly illustrates the power of place, and is perhaps the best current example of how to effectively immerse visitors in history. You can feel the immigrant experience. The staff here are masters in the art of connecting the past with the present as fully participating members of the present surrounding community. They foster discussions of American immigration policy within the context of where we have been and where we are going. LESTM is also a founding member of the International Coalition of Historic Sites of Conscience.


Facing History and Ourselves is not exactly a museum, although it does have traveling exhibits. It is more involved in working with teachers in history classrooms. It adeptly combines history with the human experience and works globally. You can read about their mission and values here.


This is an oral history organization with an understanding that the present becomes the past. They collect stories of average Americans to be placed in the Library of Congress and used for study by future historians. These recordings reflect the state of Americans today and record some truly historic moments like the stories of September 11, 2001 and Hurricane Katrina. These stories are fascinating not only for their historical importance, but also for the window they provide into the human experience - relationships, struggles and triumphs. Anyone can record a story, usually friends and family go together and interview one another. There are several traveling stations; you can see the city schedule on their website.


In particular, I find two PBS programs to be fascinating examples of how to make history interesting and personal, and also how our myths of history can sometimes be as important to us as our truths. History Detectives shows the powerful connection between objects and history, and African American Lives explores the convergence of genealogy, science and history.

As you make history every day, what can you learn about the connection between past and present?
How can we collectively come to value the study of history in a way that is meaningful?

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