Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Presence of the Past - A Review

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past:
Popular Uses of History in American Life
; Columbia
University Press: New York, 1998; 291 pp.

Every few years an "official" study concludes
that American's don't know---and don't care to learn---
anything about history. The study shocks the nation.
Colleges and universities vow to add more history classes
to their curriculums. Politicians admonish their
constituents to start studying the past. And the media
declares that something must be done about the thousands
of graduating high school seniors who can't explain the
significance of the Battle of Gettysburg or the New Deal.
Despite these best efforts, another study years later
comes to the same conclusion.

One might be forgiven for concluding that American
historical ignorance is terminal. But what if our
understanding of historical consciousness is flawed?
What if Americans really DO know and care about history,
but simply can't connect with it in the context of
classrooms or textbooks? What if the key to improving
historical consciousness is to understand the average

Professional historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen
pose these questions, and offer their own answers, in
Presence of the Past. Culled from the results of a 1994
survey, conducted in cooperation with Indiana University's
Center for Survey Research (CSR), Presence of the Past
examines how almost 1,500 respondents interacted with

Do Americans value history? In the most literal sense
they don’t. “History”, according to the respondents, is
boring, biased and irrelevant. “The past”, on the other
hand, is invaluable. To the respondents, in fact, it
is essential. It defines their identities, while also
encouraging changes. It explains their personal
victories and defeats. It helps them prepare their
children for adulthood. Clearly Americans do value
history, even if they call it something else.

Do Americans engage history? They certainly do, and often.
Nearly all 1,500 respondents frequently engaged history---in
family reunions, photo collections, oral interviews, books,
films, TV shows, historical associations, museum visits and
many other ways. They professed to feel connected to the past
while participating in these activities. In addition, they
astutely judged the reliability of historical sources they
encountered. They were neither as ignorant nor as indifferent
as professional historians often claim.

With a wide range of respondents, it was no surprise to
interviewers that age, race, gender and socioeconomic status
affected historical interactions. Respondents with higher
incomes participated in more expensive activities, such as
collection and restoration, than respondents with lower incomes.
Male respondents participated in reenactments and historical
associations, while female respondents compiled family histories
and made scrapbooks. Asked to name the defining historical
event in their lives, respondents’ choices---World War II,
the Civil Rights movement, the Battle of Wounded Knee---
generally fell along racial lines.

A separate survey of minority groups revealed other differences.
While white respondents generally trusted books and education,
African- and Native-Americans believed books and education were
biased and dishonest. As indicated above, African- and Native-
Americans identified with historical events and figures particular
to their own pasts; African-Americans, for instance, overwhelmingly
identified with Martin Luther King, Jr. Yet rejection of white
historical narratives did not mean rejection of American
historical narratives. The historical narratives of
African- and Native-Americans were in fact strikingly American:
struggles for truth and equality, and the upward progress of
society. When contrasted with white respondents’ narratives of
disillusionment and decline, minority narratives suggest that
historical interpretation is not completely black and white.

Despite such obvious differences, several constants emerge in
Presence of the Past. Respondents valued formal education only
inasmuch as it allowed them to participate in and investigate
history, not simply to memorize and regurgitate facts. They
enjoyed historical films and TV shows, but they did not completely
trust them. They read historical books, but formed their own
opinions. They considered eyewitness accounts and artifacts
more trustworthy than secondary histories. Most importantly,
they felt most connected to the past when participating
in family reunions and museum visits.

Rosenzweig and Thelen disagree on the survey’s implications,
and each author offers his own conclusions in the chapter
“Afterthoughts”. Rosenzweig sees great opportunities for the
interaction of academic history and public history. The former
can offer a larger historical context, provided that academics
treaty public historians with respect, while the former can
keep history “human” so long as they embrace inclusiveness and
objectivity. To Thelen, such strict group distinctions are false
constructs. With the illustration that “an individual could be
a woman, lawyer, Republican, Chicagoan, lesbian, Irish American”,
he concludes that different forms of history (academic versus
public, local versus national) are all essential and are all
interconnected. In his opinion, it is impossible for Americans
to completely divorce themselves from history.

Both authors insist that historians must help Americans to
understand and engage history. By what means? Presence
of the Past
makes the case for public history. More books
and more formal education won’t suffice; neither will more
historical films and TV shows. Family reunions and photo
collections are useful, but often these fall outside the
strict purview of history. By contrast, museums and historic
sites inspired great trust (8.4 of out 10 on a trustworthiness
scale) and a great sense of historical connection (7.3 out of
10 on a connection scale) among respondents. If academics and
the American public are to find any common ground, then public
history seems to be the key.

Presence of the Past is sure to provoke partisan debate. Some
will claim that a survey of only 1,500 people doesn’t prove
anything, although it is doubtful that a larger survey would
alter the basic conclusion. Some professionals and some
educators will retort that reunions and museum visits don’t
constitute “real” (read: larger nation-state narratives)
history. Historical consultants for films and television
will likely engage in either painful soul-searching (“Why don’t
they trust us?”) or else in self-congratulation (“Who cares if
they trust us or not? At least they’re watching!”). Public
historians alone will praise Presence of the Past, for it
validates them.

Yet this validation comes with a warning: the public’s trust
in public history must not be betrayed. If Americans believe
that museums and historic sites set standards for accuracy and
objectivity, then public historians must ensure that these
standards are met. Lies and distortions in public history,
like those in films, books, and TV shows, will not be overlooked.
Should public history grow complacent, should it ignore public
dialogue and cooperation, or should it succumb to special
interests, then Americans will reject it. The potential
result---complete and deliberate historical ignorance---is the
stuff of historians’ worst nightmares.

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