History as Exploration and Discovery

Article excerpt

I write on July 4, 1995. An article in today's New York Times reports interviews with children and young people which reveal that some (what proportion - even of those interviewed, no less in the population at large - is not revealed) do not know why we celebrate the Fourth of July. The two adults quoted (both experienced history teachers) provide some insight into this perhaps surprising gap in popular knowledge: One opined that most people are aware of the Declaration of Independence and the rights it bestows, including "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness." (Never mind that the Declaration of Independence bestows no rights, but merely asserts them as principles which justify self-declared independence for the thirteen colonies.) The other, president of the National Organization of History Teachers, declared that children would learn about national holidays in second and third grades, but there was need for them to be taught more history at an early age. (She had been a participant in the process of developing the National History Standards, and noted that one of the project's purposes was to emphasize the teaching of history as a more important component of social studies.) The article was one of a genre that appears in the press with a regularity that is probably linked to days (holidays) or periods (summer) during which newsworthy events are often rare. It repeats two messages that the genre conventionally transmits: History education in this country is, and has been, inadequate; and history is narrowly conceived by many teachers, students, and journalists alike as a series of facts about national politics to be mastered.(1)

Add to this the fact that Americans are probably not very different from other national populations in expecting history to provide a fact-based, uplifting, even patriotic, but certainly progressive interpretation of the past. No wonder, then, that the National History Standards, which set as goals for the pedagogy of history not only the learning of facts, but learning to analyze, weigh, and evaluate facts and their meaning, foundered under attack by individuals and groups who shared conventional views and made their argument by checking and counting mentions of obligatory names and events.

This recognition should not lead historians to abandon social history, inclusiveness, or critical thinking; rather it should strengthen our resolve to interpret what we are about and why, in ways that are meaningful to a broad public, and to involve that public in the diffusion of a useable past. Useable for what? Understanding how the world we live in came about (the connection of present with the past); realizing that our history is inseparably connected to the history of other nations and groups (spatial connections); discovering that historical outcomes have usually not been the product of motivated individual actions but interactions under given historical circumstances whose product may be unancipated by any of the individuals or groups involved.

How can social historians concretely contribute to these goals? Mike Wallace's recent thoughtful article in the Radical Historians' Newsletter(2) provides useful suggestions (in particular, careful consideration and involvement of conservative groups, which may believe themselves to have a stake in the content of an exhibition, as well as the conventionally underrepresented groups, which are likely to welcome compensatory attention) for those involved in museum curating. Wallace notes that this should not mean capitulation on issues of curatorial professional rights and responsibilities; there are basic principles that should not be betrayed. He writes, "A public historical organization might be expected to make use of up-to-date scholarship, follow appropriate rules for gathering evidence in its own research, make good faith efforts to reach out to interested consituencies and involve them as co-producers or commentators, provide ways for critics and visitors to respond to exhibitions, fairly present a range of opinions on controversial issues, and offer over time a reasonable variety of political perspectives. …