Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A few hours of sleep and a pot of coffee later...

Gotta love a historian who can put his point across in vigorous and simple language--I grant both Carl Becker and James Gardner that critique. And thanks to Tom for putting them together--I had read the Becker piece before, but after the Gardner piece, I found new sentiments take precident. For example, "Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities (Becker, 234) as opposed to Gardiner "...we need to help them [the public] understand that scholarship, interpretation, and controversy are central to what we do... we want to share the end product, but not the process." (15) What is all this saying? Here is my two cents. Obviously from the surveys, the public mostly hated the history they were taught. But they do not hate history for its own sake, and are rather motivated in pursuing historical topics that spark their interest. We, the guardians of history--and I include archivists and curators in that group--have a certain set of skills that we aquire at higher levels of education or on the job. These are techniques that are normally witheld from the public, but we use them to judge what is history and what is not. So when it comes time to teach elementary and high school kids history (and every school district insists that we do teach it for the good of the community [inculcation]), those who are not trained as we are choose to teach the kids names, places, and most importantly, dates. Thus passing on to the students those aspects of history that are easiest to quantify and most visible, but for a historian these elements are merely starting points of an investigation. My (not original to me) idea, and one that is supported in powerful ways by the Center for History and New Media, is to turn this equation over, and teach the skills first! Sure, it will be giving away some of our authority, but hey, most fifth graders do not have the attention span to think through the complex problems, so our jobs are pretty safe. Besides, who would you rather have voting for president: a critical thinker who could weigh the issues, or someone well versed in the Whiskey Rebellion? Remember, narrative without facts is fiction, but facts without narrative is a laundry list.

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