Thursday, November 8, 2012

"With high hope for the future": Holy Temples of Democracy

A Temple to Democracy
/ CC Kevin Burkett
I did it again. I went to Pennsylvania Historical Association's annual conference (this year in Harrisburg). I always seem to be the black sheep at these gathering, focused on raw emotional meanings and the usable past far more than the broader historiographical implications of either the proverbial or actual price of tea in China. This year I went to present a paper on the knock-down, dragout brawl that Daniel Sickles and William H. Tipton have throughout 1893 over the preservation of the Gettysburg Battlefield to a room full of professional historians.

OK, so the room wasn't full. There were five spectators. Yeah. That's how these academic conferences tend to go for me.

Before my session (where Dr. Bloom, my Master's thesis adviser joined me to talk about the Carlisle Indian Industrial School), I sat in on a session on Pennsylvania's colleges' and universities' Public History programs.

It was interesting to see the lay of the land, but I was unimpressed by the general trend of the conversation. I think one of the key problems that academics (even public historian of the academic stripe) have is that they are terrible communicators for a general audience. I never got the chance to ask the question during the Q&A, "do you have a mandatory interpretation or communication course in your program?"

Like a petulant preteen, I took to Twitter to grouse about it. "Here's the point the panel missed," I tweeted, "'office' historians can't communicate effectively w/ normal folks. That *NEEDS* to be problem #1."

Twitter is one of the safer places to complain like this at professional conferences I've found because barely anyone over 30 pays attention to the social media dimension of these events. To some extent, I'm simply complaining aloud to myself like a psychotic mumbler in the corner of the Metro car, swathed in a worn fatigue jacket and sporting a unkempt greying beard.

Much to my chagrin (and maybe elation) one of the panel's participants, Aaron Cowan from Slippery Rock University, wrote back. He noted that there's been, "much agonizing over this in profession." But his keen question was simple: "but do we ask this of English lit, chemistry, psych? Are historians worse?"

So I bit. I responded. Twice.

Not simply a temple
to Christ, but a temple
to liberty as well.
/ CC Meghan
"I don't think historians are worse than all acads," I wrote, "but I fear the effect is more dire: under-informed electorate." "But," I noted, "I'm one of those funky, altruistic Federal public historians."

I am one of those funky, altruistic Federal historians who thinks that our parks and sites of cultural import are sacred spaces and safeguards of liberty.

If applied physics fails, and an engineer makes a miscalculation or two, a bridge falls down and a few folks end up dead. It's a tragedy but it's ephemeral. If applied mathematics fails, and an economist makes a poor prediction or two, some investors lose a chunk of change in the market. It's a loss but it's relatively small.

But what happens if applied history fails, if public historians aren't effective in their work of communicating America to Americans?

America is a society built upon a secular religion. Our sacred spaces are our historic places. And our citizens learn the craft of citizenship, the process, the pitfalls and the promise of America, within those temples to freedom. Public historians are the scions of those spaces. If we fail to help the public find the meanings they need, if we fail to even entice them to come inside the temples, we risk losing America.

If applied history fails, and civics evaporates from the American peoples' consciousness, America falls down.


  1. John, superb post! I shudder to think that I ever shared history with someone and did not connect (it happens!). Whether I am dragging someone to a battlefield or providing an anecdote in the office, I cherish the moments to recount history with folks.

    I agree with you that the history profession should start strongly considering, “Hey, how do we share all this interesting shit with the other 99% of the population?” Perhaps we should call them the 99ers. There is an art to comprehending whether the person is “getting it.” We have to be able to read people. Regardless of their level of knowledge, do they understand the interpretation we are providing? Do they care? Are they bored? For the love of god (Clio?), do NOT bore them! We have to meet them on their level in terms of knowledge, interest, and their life experiences, among other things. While I can gain experience through socializing, I have yet to encounter a history course that teaches these concepts, or at least stresses them.

    1. Scott-

      Thanks for the kind words! I think that that amazing question, the fundamental question of, "How do we share all this interesting shit with the other 99% of the population?" isn't one we try to embed within our students in the academy by-and-large. I make sure my students are exposed to the question, "So What?" which *is* a perennially embedded question within our Department (at least from me and Dr. Guelzo). Occasionally, I phrase it far more derisively with my students to get across the potential for failure: "Why do I give a shit?"

  2. John--

    Great post and well said. As you know, I am not a professional historian, or even an academically-trained amateur one. I do think you raise some important points here. The United States, unlike many other countries, is not so much about a particular "nationality" as it is about a shared national identity rooted in our history and our ideals. The ethnic face of America may change, and is changing, but our existence as a country depends on keeping alive the idea that is our country. If future generations don't have an understanding of who we are and where we came from, then what happens to our American identity, and by extension, our country? It is essential that historians keep our national identity alive through effective communication, outreach, and teaching.

    1. I agree. I think you're right that our national identity is constantly shifting and changing, and that these places are sites of continuity. But they also have this amazing potential to be sites of understanding discontinuity as well. The best example is the newly crafted Caesar Chavez National Historic Site, an Hispanic-American history site which would have been unconscionable as a thematic addition just a decade or two ago. I think the power of these spaces as temples or churches of civic religion is also as places of collaboration and healing, much as traditional temples and churches are. They have the potential to be safe places where *all* Americans find not only themselves within the narrative, but their fellow Americans as well.