Readings this week:
Cauvin: Chapter 11 and 12
Presence of the Past: Chapter 3, 5 and Afterthoughts
Are public historians arbiters of what constitutes history? Are they wise curators who select a particular interpretation of history to present to an uninformed public? Is the public just a collection of ignorant rubes who absorb what they were taught about history passively? Do historians have a duty to act as social activists? The readings this week grapple with these sorts of questions, the two chapters in Cauvin are on public participation in sharing interpretations of the past with historians and the role that public historians play in civic engagement and social activism. While in Presence of the Past the two chapters are on how respondents to the survey use, connect, and relate to the past to understand their present and their futures while also coming to an understanding of how they relate to larger narratives and communities.
It is very easy to see just influential the 1995-7 survey on how Americans understand the past is by reading Cauvin after reading Presence of the Past. Chapters 11 and 12 are very much based on the conclusions drawn from the survey, particularly in how much emphasis is placed on making the audience an integral part of the interpretive process, Cauvin labels this process of collaborative interpretation between historians and audiences, Shared Authority. Of course this practice has definite limits particularly on subjects whose interpretations are varied and extremely polarizing, where discussion in of itself is still taboo. Cauvin provides concentration camps in Germany, European responsibility in the consequences of colonization in Africa, and Native American history as the type of subjects that are still emotionally charged. I think that the point Cauvin makes about the ultimate purpose of shared authority is that “not to make history more opinion-based, but to make public understanding of the past more critical” (p. 226) is a very important guiding principle. A bad outcome of shared authority would be the enshrinement of historical interpretations that merely confirmed instead of challenge a visitors understanding of the past.
I found Cauvin’s chapter on Historians as social activists interesting if only it severely cuts against academic expectations of the proper place of historians. Maintaining a certain distance from the subjects you are writing about in order to have “objectivity” is 180 degrees from what Cauvin advocates. I understand the evolution from civic engagement to social activism especially for subjects and peoples who have been ignored by traditional historical narratives. However I think there is a danger for the historian as social activist, if only that their advocacy would appear to the public as partisan and personal. I think Norman Finkelstein’s tenure denial is an instructive episode.
Indeed I ended up thinking a lot about the state of contemporary America while reading through the Presence of the Past. The reveal that most Americans are interested in history but not through their exposure in school and the classroom, they experience the past personally through intimate and familial links. The finding that “white” Americans tended to view their past through their family and then somewhat nebulously to wider national narratives in comparison to Latino, Black and Native Americans who tried to connect their families to a larger community to more or less degrees. I also found it interesting that for whites they seemed to view the present as being in a state of decline compared to their past. A lot of the baby boomers in the survey seemed to also lack trust in the national government and its institutions, it is sort of natural to expect this feeling from this generation when this survey was taken however I could not help but think that if this survey was done now then almost everyone would express that belief. The general erosion of trust in institutions is a major issue and perhaps one that can be combated through shared authority and increased visitor participation in interpretations.