Sunday, January 27, 2013

Week Three: Culture Wars and Revisionists

I want to start off by saying I'm writing this with a fever of over 101, and my brain is a little, well, foggy might be the best way to put it. I am therefore apologizing in advance for any typos, sentence fragments, or random words. Now that we have THAT out of the way, I shall continue.

I'm also going to say here that I know more people than just my history classmates will read this. I am fully aware that some of what I say here is going to rub some people the wrong way. It is not my intention to be inflammatory here at all. I am merely commenting, as a historian, on something I have seen a lot of.

While most of this week's readings came again from the Gardner/LaPaglia book and contained great information on working as public historians in various arenas (including sites, parks, museums, and even corporations), I want to focus on the supplemental article we also read. The reading was chapter one from Gary Nash's History on Trial: Culture Wars and the Teaching of the Past. Those of you who know my past know exactly why I chose this piece to focus on. For those of you who don't, read on.

Growing up in the mainstream conservative Evangelical world, the phrase, "culture wars" was one we heard often, and it usually pertained to loss of "family values," the emergence of gay marriage, abortion, secular pop/rock music, and many more modern tv shows and movies. It may be hard for some to imagine, but that emphasis on the culture wars increased tenfold when my family left mainstream conservative Evangelicalism and moved into fundamentalism, through our Independent Fundamentalist Baptist church and homeschooling organization. These culture wars included public school, Christian rock music, and women wearing pants, among other things, and in addition to everything the mainstream Evangelical world had declared war on.

During these years, I saw thousands of people fight these culture wars as if their very entrance to Heaven depended on it. It was also during this time I became aware of an insidious force  in the world: revisionist history. My A Beka history curriculum (published by Pensacola Christian College), church, and of course such fundamentalist groups as Wallbuilders and Vision Forum told me that the revisionists were liberals, out to change our history, and turn our country into an Atheistic Communist country. According to what I learned in high school (as a fundamentalist homeschooler) and as a young adult, almost all of our founding fathers were born-again Christians. Slavery "wasn't that bad" (and it was often just ignored). The women's suffrage movement was the beginning of the end for family values. The 1950s were perfect- everyone was happy and moral, and all was good. I even remember watching my A Beka school videos and listening to the American history teacher talk about how awesome the 1890s were.

Then I left that all behind, and majored in history in college. I learned so many things. I learned that while a few Founding Fathers actually were born-again Christians, most were Deists. I learned that no, actually, slavery WAS that bad and should not be ignored. I learned the women's suffrage movement was not such a "radical feminist" thing as I was taught. I learned that the 1950s were by no means perfect, and were filled with manipulation and fear-mongering and Joseph McCarthy. And the 1890s? I have yet to figure out what that teacher was talking about, unless overcrowded tenaments, a depression, and urban filth and corruption are his idea of a "good time." I learned that Revisionism can come from anywhere: left or right, and occurs when people have an agenda other than ascertaining and teaching what happened. 

This chapter we read talks a lot about the culture wars and revisionism, especially in regards to right wingers, Lynn Cheney, Newt Gingrich, and Rush Limbaugh.  I will admit I thought Nash was less balanced than he could have been, though personally, I see far more revisionism coming from the right than from the left. In addition to Cheney, Gingrich, and Limbaugh, people like Glenn Beck, David Barton (of the aforementioned Wallbuilders), and Bill O'Riley, seem to work more from a predetermined conclusion than from a set of questions relevant to primary sources. (That's being generous- Nash talked about a time when Limbaugh presented a set of history education standards as a new revisionist way that's accidental!) It also seems as though for many people, the further right they go, the less they're willing to re-examine old information through new analytical tools (such as social history, agency, etc.). This is not always the case, of course.

With this kind of revisionism, I was taught that what happened, happened. There's no mystery to interpretation. 1+1=2, that's the way it's always been, that's the way it always will be, end of story, no need to go back and revisit old facts. Now, of course, that's true about some things. William the Conqueror invaded Britain from Normandy in 1066. That happened. Columbus sailed the ocean blue in 1492. That absolutely happened. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. That happened. These things are not going to change with interpretation. Other things will. It seems to me that many of the people and organizations I have mentioned are rather adverse to accepting social history, even though it has been a significant part of historical interpretation for the last 50 years now. Another thing I see many of these people do is look at history outside of its actual historical context. Simply put, it is not possible to look at the Founding Fathers outside of the context of the Enlightenment. Of course, left-wing revisionists like to take things out of their historical context as well. In fact, they seem more prone to anaylizing things too much from modern perspectives than anything else.

I remember once debating about child labor laws on Facebook with a friend of mine who is decidedly more conservative than I am. We branched off into women's suffrage, and I believe slavery and civil rights as well (you know who you are!). She and I were going about our debate quite civilly when I got a private message from someone I didn't know. He was basically imploring me to stop embarrassing myself with my lack of historical knowledge and understanding. He then said how interesting it is that Jesus or the Apostle Paul never advocated people demanding their rights and standing up for themselves against authority, as was common in these various social movements. I replied back, asking him what constitutes just authority, and how American slaves were wrong in trying to get their freedom, as many of these slaves were kidnapped, which, according to the Old Testament, is punishable by death. I also asked him how it was that slaves, children, and women were not Biblically justified in fighting for their rights, and yet the American Revolution, and the failed Southern Revolution were acceptable. Of course, he came back saying I don't know enough about history or the Bible for him to try and explain it all to me. It was more the double-standard that struck me than anything. Things that come from the study of politics and empire (such as revolutions) are acceptable, but things that come from a study of the little man (social history: slaves, children, women, and poor people, to over-simplify) were clearly taboo.

The reality is, we as historians- and as a society- must find a balance between looking at the past as a set of objective facts which are as easily interpreted accurately in 1800 as in 2013, and something that is always changing, ever fluid and fluctuating. The reality is yes, what happened happened. However, our ability to understand and interpret what happened, and why, is constantly in flux.

Does anyone actually expect to accomplish anything productive when using such terms as "culture wars," and while pointing the finger at those darn revisionists on either side of the spectrum, when in reality, both sides are often revising things to their own liking? When I grew up, and heard of two people fighting, I often heard people say, "the truth is probably somewhere in the middle." Meaning, neither account was probably correct on its own, but if we look at the facts, and take both stories, we can probably get fairly close to working out what really happened.

Why can't we do this with history as well? This is where I'll probably lose some of you. Why should it be this big deal if America was not established as a Christian nation? Why should it be some earth-shattering event to find out America was only "the land of the free" for white landowners? No, really. Can someone tell me? If that's what actually happened, why is it such a travesty to acknowledge that, and work forward from there? I can ask the same kinds questions to the extreme left as well. Why is it that we must go into our historical research with a conclusion ready to go, wanting not to find out what actually happened and why, but trying to figure out how to use facts and/or interpretation to prove our foregone conclusions?

In conclusion, I do want to say, it's very important to re-examine facts, and do it often. Who writes the history can control what it says. This is a bit light-hearted, but nonetheless true, and I wanted to leave you all with something fun. In the musical, Wicked, the wicked witch, Elphaba, has a conversation with the Wizard, in which the Wizard sings the following:
     "Elphaba, where I come from, be believe all kinds of things that are wrong. We call it "history."
      A man's called a 'traitor,' or 'liberator,'
      A rich man's a 'theif' or 'philanthropist;'
      Is one a crusader, or ruthless invader?
      It's all in which label is able to exist.
      There are precious few at ease with moral ambiguities,
      So they act as though they don't exist."
He's actually spot on here. In most of Western-written history over the last few centuries, the European crusaders have been the good guys. In most Middle Eastern history over the last few centuries, they were the bad guys. Really, what's right? Just because Columbus said he was exploring for the glory of God doesn't mean he actually was. He knew his journals were going to be read, are you kidding me? Of course, he's not necessarily the monster he's been painted as more recently, either. It is really important that we, whether historians or just responsible citizens, pay attention and educate ourselves, constantly taking into account new findings, and approaching our research without preconceived conclusions.

 Here's the video for the song I mentioned above. You should watch it- makes me smile every time.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Week Two: What's A Historian to Do?

No, really. What is a historian to do? Ever since I changed my major as an undergrad from music to history, just about any time someone asks me what I'm studying and I tell them, they end up saying, "'re going to teach?" This probably happens 99 times out of a hundred, and no, I'm not exaggerating. If I had a dollar for every time someone has said that to me, I could probably buy myself that new laptop I so desperately need. The general public seems to assume that if someone is going into history, the only occupation open to that individual is teaching. In fact, many history majors, and many people with history degrees mistakenly think the same thing.

As I said in my last post, when I came to Southeast Missouri State, I had no idea what Public History is. I did know that some historians work at museums and historic sites, but I really didn't know anything more than that. In the last two years here, studying in a department with an excellent public history program, and finally deciding to get a certificate in Heritage Education through said program, I have learned a lot about the opportunities open to public historians. However, I have learned more through this week's readings about specific possibilities than in the last two years combined.

While reading through the various essays for this week's assignment (again, taken from the Gardner and LaPaglia text), I kept thinking, "How is it that I have gotten to the end of my Master's program, and am just now learning of all these possibilities!?" I mean, sure, on some level, I knew each option existed, but kind of in the same way that I know travel to the moon is possible: people do it, but not people like me. The more I read, the more I thought about what a shame it is that so few people- whether currently studying history or already possessing a degree- know about all of the options out there. In fact, I began to think that this really should somehow be fit into the college curriculum for history majors. Perhaps even just existing in booklet form with a title such as "What To Do With A Degree In History," and being handed out to graduating Seniors would suffice. But somehow, it's a small travesty that so few people with history degrees know their options. When I was a Senior at Ouachita Baptist University, as part of the CORE curriculum, every Senior had to take a "Senior Seminar" with other Seniors in their school, which for me, was social sciences. For one hour each week, Senior history, psychology, political science, and sociology majors would meet and discuss topics relating to being a professional in the social sciences. Perhaps one of those class periods could have been about specific options for each of those majors- options other than those "obvious" options everyone seems to think about. There was way too much material in this week's reading to talk about here, so I will stick to talking about the four occupations I found most surprising and interesting:

So, what are these "other" options? The first is that of "administrator." Michael J. Devine wrote this essay, entitled, "Administrators: Students of History and Practitioners of the Art of Management. Devine spends a lot of time persuasively arguing why historians, and not business people, should be placed in positions of administration at museums and historic sites. He also gives a nod to the "feud" between academic and public history by retelling a story about a historian who worked at the Smithsonian for years and then went back to the university where he got his Ph.D. to give a talk to the graduate students about his work, of which he was very proud. One of his former professors approached him afterwards, saying what a pity it was that he couldn't get a teaching job, because he would have made such a good historian- implying that working for the Smithsonian does not count as being a historian! How absolutely ridiculous this is. Devine's main point is that historical institutions absolutely must have a historian as their chief administrators, because only historians can really understand what is important. Someone with an M.B.A. and no history background will not. It's the same with many administrative roles, really- most school principals and superintendents have teaching degrees, hospitals often employ M.D.s in administrative positions, etc. For an administrator to do his or her job well, he or she must not only be a good delegator, mediator, decision maker, and budget maker, but he or she must also be very familiar with whatever it is in which the institution specializes. Otherwise, it will not work as it should.

The second was highly interesting to me: independent contractor. I guess I knew they existed, but I'd never thought of it before. Jannelle Warren-Findley discusses this option in her essay, "Contract Historians and Consultants." She talks of the ups and downs of such a career choice, and why she eventually chose another path. After reading this essay, I think perhaps this might be something I could happily do as an alternative to teaching. Of course, one of the pitfalls to this is having to figure out how to run your own business, but that is true with many career choices. Some of the benefits though include being able to use and develop different skill sets, travel (she once spent three weeks in Asia as part of her job), and work independently. While challenging, this would be a great option, and could potentially be great fun.

The occupation of documentary editor was option number three. Written by Candace Falk, "Documentary Editors: Not As Boring As It Sounds," discusses an aspect of documentary making I had never before considered. She talks about how it often takes decades of dedicated research on a single topic to create a documentary, and actually refers to it in terms of "psychosis," saying that a documentary editor has to be almost obsessed with his or her topic to do it well. One thing I didn't realize is that for many documentary editors, they spend years going through unpublished, and often uncatalogued primary sources. In Falk's case, she went through more than 20,000 letters, writings, and other documents associated with Emma Goldman (now there's a person I'd love to write a blog post about!). Of course, with something like this, much more is accomplished than simply a documentary at the end of  the project. Thanks to Falk and her team, thousands of microfilmed primary sources regarding Emma Goldman now exist which did not before. This will no doubt be a significant resource for many researchers for years to come. One of the later essays in this week's reading, "Film And Media Producers: Taking History Off The Page And Putting It On The Screen," by Nina Gilden Seavey was also about documentary filmmaking, and discussed some additional issues dealing with this (and related) chosen occupation.

Surprising occupation number four is discussed in Sylvia K. Kraemer's essay, "Policy Advisors: Historians And Making Policy." Kraemer was involved in helping the Clinton Administration develop its space policies. Of course, this kind of position is much harder to obtain than the others I have discussed, but regardless, it is an interesting place for a historian to land. She addresses the issue of "objectivity" concerning historians involved in policy-making, in that while our profession makes complete and true objectivity more or less impossible (as she put it, historians do not really approach topics with a "tabula rasa," rather we have already formed some biases and have specific-rather than general- questions in mind), historians are especially able to search out the evidence and counter-evidence concerning these questions, and then utilize the information in a way which is conducive to creating solid policy. Essentially, Kraemer argues that one of the biggest benefits to having historians as a part of a policy-making team is that we make excellent decision makers based on empirical evidence. This was something I had not considered, but is absolutely true- historians do indeed have a fantastic set of skills to help with creating policy, and not just in the government, either. There are plenty of corporate applications for this as well.

To sum it all up, there are far more career opportunities for historians than even many of us know. I do believe it would behoove us to figure out a way to educate history majors in these possibilities before they end up educated and out of work, or working a minimum-wage job that anyone without a high school diploma could do. Perhaps, it's time for a change.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Week One: The Hatfields and McCoys

In addition to my M.A., I am working on a graduate certificate in Heritage Education. While I have completed all but the thesis for my M.A., I still have one course required for my Heritage Ed. certificate, which I am taking this semester. As one of the requirements for this course, each student is required to keep a weekly reading blog, with entries pertaining to our readings. Because I already have this blog, and because the requirements for these posts are so broad, meaning I can make most of them interesting to a lot of people outside of my class, I have decided to go ahead and post them here. I'm actually looking forward to the opportunity to do more blogging this semester. I may post some entries not related to my class, as I always do, but I'll have at least one per week from my class. I suppose we shall see how this goes!

For our first class, we were assigned to read the first two essays from the book, Public History: Essays from the Field, edited by James B. Gardner and Peter S. LaPaglia.

In her essay, "Becoming a Public Historian," Constance B. Schulz spends most of her time looking at how a person becomes a public historian and how public history as a legitimate subset within the field of history has developed over the last several decades. Interestingly enough, public history has only been recognized as a legitimate field since the 1970s. Before that, very few historians who went on to graduate school ever intended to work outside of the academe. Most of the historians who found themselves working in museums or historical sites, or otherwise working outside of a university setting, only did so after they failed to find jobs within universities. Public history (which had not yet received its name) was seen as a last resort for failed academic historians. Working outside of the academe was viewed as second-best.

Finally, in the mid-1970s, a few universities began developing graduate programs (almost exclusively within history departments) specifically to train public or "applied" historians. Not only did the students in these programs study academic history and learn to study, write, and research as an academic historian, but they also received formal training in working with museums, archives, and many other public history venues. At long last, the academe was "legitimizing" public history. Well, kind of.

Patricia Mooney-Melvin focuses on the ongoing tension between academic and public historians in her essay, "Professional Historians and the Challenge of Redefinition." When I arrived at Southeast Missouri State University two years ago, I had a B.A. in history, and absolutely zero idea of what "public history" is. I'd never even heard the term. It was not long, however, that I learned that public history is simply presenting history to the public, in one way or another, whether it be through museums, archives, documentaries, newspaper articles, historic preservation, or something else. I thought, "well that's cool, but I don't want to be one." My passion is academic history. And that's where my thoughts on the matter ended. Then I had a rude awakening.

There is an ongoing, decades-old, cold war raging between many public historians and academic historians. Um. Why? That's an excellent question. But I suppose that asking such a question about this issue will do little more good than asking what exactly it was that began the famous feud between the Hatfields and McCoys. I'm not sure anyone really has a good answer to that.

Mooney-Melvin's essay got me thinking though. She argues that the term "historian" should be redefined (though I'm not sure it was ever really defined well to begin with), in an effort to help include both public and academic history, which would then help bridge the gap between the two, and foster a more cooperative relationship between public and academic historians. This is not a bad idea, by any means. However, I can't figure out why there would be any tension between academic and public historians. In my opinion, the two are highly inter-dependent, and the two disciplines should be mutually inclusive, not mutually exclusive, as some would like to make them.

In her essay, Mooney-Melvin talked about many academic historians who would love nothing more than for their work to be used solely by other academics. What a waste. Yes, I said it. To me, that's  no different than a brilliant research doctor saying he only wants his discoveries used by other research doctors. They may cure cancer, but never make it available to the public. How is it any different for a historian's life work to be used only by other historians? Sure, the application of history may be less life-saving than the application of cancer research, but it is no less important to the future of society.

I don't want to make my living full-time as a public historian, but I do want my research and work to allow me to be of some use in making this world a better place. I study African-American history, and right now, my main focus has been slavery and abolition, but I've also studied many other topics within African-American history. It is impossible for me to count the number of times people I know have asked for my help, as a historian of African-American history, on things ranging from how to raise their kids to be truly colorblind in terms of race, to asking me to step in and help mediate a raging online fight having to do with a racial issue. It has been my privilege to be able to do a lot of practical good as an individual historian in these matters. No, doing things like mediating an argument about race, or trying to get through to someone who has been raised in a culture of racial prejudice, are not by any means fun. I often feel as though I'm being handed a ticking bomb and told to deactivate it. Um, no thanks. But I also do know that this kind of work is important- vital even- if we are to improve as a society at all. As a historian, I realize that we rarely do more than trade one set of evils for another, but as humans, our goal should be to always better ourselves, and better society, whether we end up succeeding or not. We have made great strides as far as racial equality goes, but we have a very long way to go, and if I was to spend my life studying African-American history and never use any of what I learned to make a practical difference in this area, that would be a profound waste.

Not only do I personally want to make a difference, but I'm glad to know there are public historians out there who can take my research and writings, and interpret them for the public. They can take my work and make it practically accessible and understandable to non-historians. Conversely, I am able to spend time researching certain topics on a level that a public historian simply cannot do, because they're too busy doing other tasks.

I realize, as these two essays point out, that there is definitely a rift between the public and academic history communities, but there absolutely should not be. Both subsets are vitally important to society, and absolutely inter-dependent. Without public historians, academic historians would be useless. Without academic historians, public historians wouldn't have enough information to present to the public. Both sides are desperately needed.

To put it bluntly, both sides need to get over themselves and realize they can happily work together, rather than constantly bickering and demeaning the other side. Really, how is this any better than the Hatfields and McCoys?