Historiography as Pedagogy: Thoughts about the Messy Past and Why We Shouldn't Clean It Up

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Historiography is vital to our teaching about the past and to our understanding of the present, though you would not always know as much from the practices of K-16 history educators. (1) When I began my first full-time position as a college history teacher, in Wooster, Ohio, in the fall of 1990, a well-meaning colleague gave me some advice: "Avoid historiography like the plague," he said, adding that students just did not care about the changing views and perspectives of historians over time. Rather than avoiding historiography "like the plague," though, I have ended up making it the foundation of my teaching over the years. I teach a graduate course dedicated solely to the historiography of the American West. But beyond that specialized class offering, historiographical contexts serve as a backdrop for all of my courses, graduate and undergraduate, including the second half of the introductory U.S. survey. (2) If you want students to understand the dynamism and the relevance of the past, then you have to let them know that the past is and always has been the subject of debate, not just for politicians and historians, but for all people who want to understand their world.

I try to illuminate contemporary issues by emphasizing how scholars have viewed historical trends and events differently at different moments in time. This is historiography--the history of historical writing and thinking. Or, to offer a more vital explanation: Historiography is the study of the dynamic past, a past that is always messy, ever changing, never resolved, and always relevant to the present. The past is contested terrain and the historiographer is the explorer of that interpretive battlefield. Unless we can get students to understand the messy and exciting truth about history, they are in danger of subscribing to stereotypes that pervade public understanding of the discipline.

Historiography should be central to our teaching, but for it to become so we need to overcome some serious barriers to the development of a historiographical consciousness. America loves history. This is a sweeping statement, I know, but there seems to be a good deal of evidence to support it. Americans flock to historical sites such as Colonial Williamsburg, where they can view the past "just as it was." Chautauqua performances and other historical reenactments also provide us an opportunity to view the past in exact replica. The History Channel garners reassuringly high viewer ratings, and these ratings are, I think, evidence of public interest in history. In the twenty-one years that I lived in England, no one ever asked me what earlier period I wished I could live in. But in America the question is asked surprisingly often, as evidence again, I would suggest, that the American public is interested in the past.

However, Colonial Williamsburg, Chautauqua, the History Channel, the desire to "visit" an earlier age in real time, or virtually or vicariously, these can all be examples of the dead past, of history, as well ... "history," unless there is careful attention paid to the past's contested nature and its pertinence to the present. The past gets exciting, it becomes contested, and it comes to life when we think historiographically. Some tour guides at Colonial Williamsburg still get uncomfortable when visitors ask about slavery in the region. The happy colonial past gets messy, and that is when it becomes really interesting. That is when we learn from it.

But for that historiographical breakthrough to occur, we need to exorcize some commonly committed cardinal sins against the dynamic past. (My Catholic childhood is surely surfacing here.) It is not just a problem in the classroom that we have to address. These transgressions against the dynamic past are committed all the time, even in everyday conversation, and their very ubiquity constitutes a challenge to our efforts to make history meaningful to our audiences. In short, an ahistorical or even anti-historical consciousness pervades American popular culture, perhaps no more so than in previous eras, but it is certainly with us in full force today. …