Category Archives: Uncategorized

Historical Literacy and Public History, Part 1

Historians and political pundits often lament the woeful historical ignorance of the public. They claim that the lack of historical knowledge causes people to make bad political choices or appreciate their country less than they should. But I wonder whether the ignorance of the American public about history (which I’m not disputing) has the profound political ramifications that so many pundits claim.

For the final paper for Issues and Problems in Public History, our professor asked us to write a paper that synthesized our readings into an argument about how the mythic past and historical memory propel the practices of public history. Working on this paper made me think about how history really functions, at least in the United States. What follows is the theoretical background for a couple of future blog posts about historical literacy and public history.

History and politics interact on several levels. These levels are fluid, often working together to help form the basis of people’s historical consciousness.

First, identity. David Lowenthal suggests that “we alter the past to become part of it as well as to make it our own.”[1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 331.] Individuals base their identity in large part on their past, both their own past accomplishments and their forebears’. What is true for individuals is also true for nations. Lowenthal suggests that personal memory is to identity what history is to collective “self-awareness”: memory and history validate a sense of identity.[2. Lowenthal, 213.]

Forming a collective identity is difficult because the collective has to attempt to incorporate the identities of all its members. This means that collective historical memory is both something less  and something more than individual historical memory. It is less because it operates by consensus–only the things that the group agrees on are maintained in the collective memory–but more because it provides a historical grounding for people who do not have a personal past they can or want to identify with.

When individuals cannot claim their own past, they can identify with the past of a larger group they are part of. But when groups or nations do not have a past they can meaningfully identify with, they may turn instead to an invented tradition. These traditions are not just for nostalgic effect: Eric Hobsbawm argues that invented traditions are explicitly didactic, and they are used to cope with social change.[3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1, 5.] History can be used to establish political legitimacy for groups who can establish their historical identity, perhaps even more so when the tradition is invented: Hobsbawm suggests that “all invented traditions, so far as possible, use history as a legitimator of action and cement of group cohesion.”[4. Hobsbawm, 12.]

It is remarkable how powerful and pervasive an invented tradition can be. One only has to look at the obsession of Scotland (and the world) with tartans and clans to see that invented identity can hold as much weight as, if not more weight than, an identity based in historical fact. Most people who claim an invented identity probably do not even know that their tradition is fabricated. Those who do know either consciously choose to not care, or they change their way of identifying themselves. As Lowenthal points out, we almost always change the past to make it more positive and more coherent.[5. Lowenthal, 325.] But in the process of creating such a past, we exclude or marginalize those who were in the historical record but do not reflect well on our sense of ourselves.

Narratives. Identity is constructed most effectively through the use of narratives, which is the second point at which public history and politics intersect. A single person can be a part of many narratives, from the highly individual to the cosmic. These narratives are effective for at least two reasons. First, everyone remembers stories, especially about themselves. It is not necessary to know the facts of one’s history in order to be part of (and be aware of being a part of) a larger narrative. In fact, the specific details do not even matter all that much.

All people need to know in order to be a part of the American national narrative is that America has always been about about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all; if even that is too much to remember, then citizens of the United States need remember only that they live in the greatest nation on earth. That metanarrative will inform their political choices and all them to call others’ political choices into question if they appear to diminish America’s greatness.

Second, narratives are flexible. They can be leveraged on all sides in order to achieve political goals. Because they are not strictly fact-based, their interpretations can be multiple and even conflicting; they may be able to merely co-exist instead of colliding head-on.

Tragedies. Some events in history do not fit into the standard heroic narrative. The grave injustices, serious misjudgments, and horrifying tragedies in history do not fit into a narrative of progress and greatness. dealing with these events and injustices is the third point of intersection between public history and politics. When narratives in conflict cannot bend to co-exist, public historians must decide which narrative is the correct one and thus which to perpetuate. Often, historians fixed on a particular narrative simply ignore the ugly parts of their past; as Lowenthal says, “Americans for whom history has to be a chronicle of national greatness shun reminders of what seems shameful and demeaning.” But this type of historical forgetfulness, though impossible to avoid in the general public, is irresponsible in the hands of historians who ought to know better.

So, as historians, both public and academic, how do we work with ideas of identity and narrative? 

Academic Hardcores and Academic Farbs

In the book Confederates in the Attic, Tony Horwitz encounters Civil War re-enactors of varying levels of seriousness about their craft. They divide into two main categories: hardcores and farbs. The hardcores get into their roles as accurately as possible, even starving themselves so they look like haggard Confederate soldiers. They eat, drink, and breathe the Civil War. (One hardcore says, “I don’t do drugs; I do the Civil War.”)[1.  Tony Horwitz, Confederates in the Attic: Dispatches from the Unfinished Civil War (New York: Pantheon Books, 1998), 14.] By contrast, the farbs dabble in re-enactment but do not trouble with the exacting details of appearance and behavior that hardcores do. Hardcores, of course, disdain farbs and farby behavior.

Horwitz gets involved in this dichotomy of re-enactor culture because he joins up with a super-hardcore named Robert Hodge. In the course of his travels with Hodge, Horwitz learns just how far hardcores will go to preserve the illusion of actually living in the past. He experiences, as much as is possible, the life of a Confederate soldier.

In a class discussion of the book, the question was raised: Are academic historians hardcore about their discipline, or are they farbs? 

The class suggested that most academic historians would call themselves hardcore. However, many historians have never lived where their subjects lived, or worked with their subject matter, so perhaps they are in fact farbs. (Our professor gave the example of a historian writing a book about wood without ever having done any woodworking.)

The question about hardcores and farbs, re-enactors or historians, is whether painstaking and total immersion into the culture about which you are focused is really beneficial to your understanding. Do you have to have experienced in some way your subject in order for you to write about it intelligibly?

For some subjects, it seems impossible to have any meaningful present experiential connection with your work. (For instance, there’s not really enough information about ancient Sumer to definitively experience it.) But for a subject like mine, the navy, I do wonder whether learning to sail would help me to understand a ship’s culture in a more meaningful way.

This idea dovetails with the reading for my other class for this week: Clifford Geertz’s “Thick Description” and “Deep Play,” as well as Robert Darnton’s “The Great Cat Massacre.” These works demonstrate that no matter how ingrained you get in a foreign culture (whether present or past), you will always be Other. You can’t be in the Civil War just because you look like you’re from the Civil War. But you can read about the Civil War, and apply the principles of thick description, trying to understand the symbolic meaning of the rituals of the Confederacy instead of emulating their hygiene practices.

My reading of Geertz indicates to me that no one can ever be 100% hardcore. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that a historian ought not try.


What do you think? Are you a hardcore? If you are, why are you? If not, why not? (Also, if you’re in another discipline, are there parallels for your discipline?)


Omeka Development Plan

In their book Digital HistoryA Guide to Gathering, Preserving, and Presenting the Past on the WebDan Cohen and Roy Rosenzweig advocate that digital historians should have a well-defined plan for their websites before they start. So I thought I’d share my ideas about Preble’s Boys here, and perhaps get some feedback from others about the plan.


First off, the inspiration. I was inspired to do this project by thinking about how naval officers of the nineteenth century acted, specifically to what extent they acted in concert with their official orders or whether they tended to be influenced by each other. One pressing question was this: How much did they really interact with each other?  I don’t have the primary sources to do this sort of investigation at this point (tracking down all the officers’ papers is going to be quite an undertaking). When I looked for secondary sources that might address the question, I remembered Fletcher Pratt’s 1950 book Preble’s Boys.

Preble’s Boys is an entertaining read, written very much in an old-school narrative style that has a certain charm. But the stories Pratt tells are often speculative or at least unverified (he explicitly states that he doesn’t think bibliographies belong in books), so his conclusions about the cohesion of this group of naval officers are open to dispute. In addition, the maps and diagrams in the book, though charmingly drawn, are not that helpful in explaining ship movement (since they are static).

Second, the purpose. My purpose with this project, then, is to essentially reinvigorate Pratt’s book using interactive web technology. I don’t plan to use Pratt’s actual words, but I’m going to use his framework to create a digital exhibit about these men.

Third, the goals.

I have several goals, which take the form of phases of the project.

1. Create a digital exhibition that provides an introduction to the group Preble’s Boys, their ships, and the battles they were in. (That’s the phase I’m working on right now.) This introduction isn’t intended as a scholarly treatment of any of these men or their activities, though it is intended to be a little more scholarly than Pratt’s original (cited sources and all that). It’s merely for basic education. However, even this basic treatment benefits from the web medium. I’d like to use Neatline to recast battle maps and ship diagrams as interactive rather than static. Even this small change will enhance existing scholarship about the  19th-c. navy. This phase’s audience is primarily the general public. (I’d love to do animations of the battle diagrams, too, but I’m not an animator. If anyone would like to collaborate, give me a shout-out.)

2. Document the connections between Preble’s Boys using network analysis. This phase will help to interrogate Pratt’s claims of connections between the men linked to Edward Preble. This phase will take some time, as I will have to build the network from the ground up. In other words, I’ll have to track down the primary sources. I’m also not quite sure how to measure connections here. (I’m sure I’ll write more about this later.) Once I get the network going, I’ll publish it to the website. This phase will help historians like me see just how influential Edward Preble was in shaping the early navy. (Or maybe it will show that someone else was influential. I don’t know.)

3. Provide digital copies of the papers of these men, as well as other relevant primary sources. The work of getting digital copies of the sources will hopefully occur in concert with phase 2. Getting permission to post them online and creating a decent archive framework may be the bigger issue (Omeka’s going to help with the framework). But in the end, I would like Preble’s Boys to be a sort of compendium of information about these officers.


So that’s the plan. Comments, questions, suggestions, prohibitions, exhortations welcome!