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 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

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 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

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 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? 

  1. David Lowenthal, The Past Is a Foreign Country (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1985), 331.
  2. Lowenthal, 213.
  3. Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 1, 5.
  4. Hobsbawm, 12.
  5. Lowenthal, 325.

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