Peter Feinman: Why is the Press Indifferent to History?How Do We Communicate History?

At the recently concluded annual conference of the American Historical Association, in addition to the passionate discussions about &#8220NO HISTORY JOBS! NO HISTORY JOBS! NO HISTORY JOBS!&#8221 featured in my previous post, there were four panels on &#8220Historians, Journalists, and the Challenges of Getting It Right.&#8221 Excerpts from a report by Rick Shenkman, publisher and editor-in-chief of the History News Network on these presentations follow [his full report is online].

&#8220The panels were established at the initiation of the National History Center’s Roger Louis and USC’s Marty Kaplan in cooperation with the Annenberg School of Communications [of the University of Pennsylvania]&#8230-.At today’s morning panel, Kaplan asked if journalists are beholden to a simplified view of history. Jackson Lears [Rutgers and author of Rebirth of a Nation, the Making of Modern America, 1877-1920] immediately answered in the affirmative. He noted that journalists tend to simplify events while historians try to show how complex they are. Simplicity is inadequate because &#8220history is essentially tragic,&#8221 considering the unintended consequences that attend most events. He got a laugh when he observed that any time a historian goes to a convention of social scientists, there’s the feeling that their analyses are just too plain simple.

&#8220Rick Perlstein [author of Nixonland: The Rise of a President and the Fracturing of America] groused that when Rick Santorum gave his (second place) [now first place!] victory speech in Iowa, no one noticed that the story he told about his grandfather’s escape from Mussolini’s Italy led to years working in a coal mine in a company town where miners were paid in script, turning them into indentured servants. So much for the American dream&#8230-.This prompted laments about the absence of a grand narrative.&#8221

The topic of a grand narrative for New York State has been raised among others by Peter Eisenstadt, editor-in-chief of the Encyclopedia of New York State (2005) and managing editor of the Encyclopedia of New York City (1995). Part of the challenge in writing a textbook or popular history of New York State is due to the extraordinary range of peoples, places, and events in the one state. While some peoples history date back to the colonial period or earlier, many others are locked into the Ellis Island/FDR or 9/11 time periods. Developing a single story to encompass all our residents requires an extraordinary range of expertise and writing skill to engage an audience that may only care for their own story and no one elses.

This topic relates to several issues of immediate concern that will be the subject of future posts:

1. New York State is now in the process of reviewing its social studies curriculum. What should the role of the NYS History Community, if any, be in this process?

2. How do we bridge the gap between scholarly or academic history and popular history?

3. What communication forums need to be developed so members of the History Community can have ongoing dialogue on these issues? As an example here is a recent example from a listserv that highlights the issue.

H-Net List for Teaching Social Studies in Secondary Schools
From: &#8220Hunt, Tamara L.&#8221
Date: Wed, 18 Jan 2012 16:09:39 -0600
To: [email protected]
Subject: Developing a Course

I am developing a class on teaching methods for college students planning to teach high school history, and while I have more than 20 years of experience teaching at the college level, I’ve never taught in high school. I’m wondering if the list members could give me some input on things they think should be addressed in such a class, including types of assignments, texts, exercises, or anything else they would like to share with me.

Thanks in advance for your help!

Dr. Tamara L. Hunt
Professor and chair, Department of History
University of Southern Indiana
8600 University Blvd.
Evansville, IN 47712

What active forums exist in New York today for such a discussion among teachers, public historians, historical societies and museums, and history and education departments in colleges on these questions? Considering that the social studies curriculum is now under review and the under-appreciated significance of cultural heritage tourism particularly in areas of economic difficulties in the state, now more than ever is the time for leadership and action in the New York State history community.

At the AHA conference, the following comments also were included in Shenkman’s report:

&#8220Perlstein said that he’s less concerned when movie-makers, for example, make errors than when they wholly falsify history, as Oliver Stone did with his movie about JFK.&#8221

Perlstein’s analysis is shortsighted, counter-productive, and dangerous &#8211 he lived through the times of JFK so he remembers it first hand. What about someone who scarcely knows who JFK even is yet alone when he lived? If we don’t take charge of the teaching of history and its dissemination, Hollywood and &#8220I read it on the internet&#8221 will.

To be continued.

3 thoughts on “Peter Feinman: Why is the Press Indifferent to History?How Do We Communicate History?

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    I love history now but I HATED it as a subject in high school. They won’t take my advice but here it is anyway: Burn all of the textbooks.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Addie’s right, fewer textbooks would help.

    As usual, Peter makes many great points. “Complicating history is something THV tries to do along with bridging “the gap between… academic history and popular history.”

    Our annual institute (7/24-26 in Hyde Park) always features both scholars and popularizers including K-12 teachers. This year’s theme is IN CONFLICT & CRISES: TEACHING THE HUDSON VALLEY FROM CIVIL WAR TO CIVIL RIGHTS & BEYOND.

    An important subtheme is teaching history as ongoing and changeable. Workshop and field experience proposals will be accepted until March 1. Details on our website.

  • November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

    Well said! Thanks for your perseverance against the odds.
    Rose O’Keefe, WNY history author


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