Friday, April 8, 2011

Fractured Communities?

Yesterday, I attended a great session on public history and teaching in the classroom. The panelists spoke about using public history as a teaching tool for both K-12 students and undergraduate college students. One presenter, Cynthia Wallace-Casey, used the television show The Sopranos to illustrate her point about history’s “truth:” who do you believe? Your teacher? Your textbook? Your parents? In this current era of budget cuts, emphasis on standardized testing, and lack of institutional support for field trips, it is important for history educators and those of us that work to get our collections/historic houses used in history education to point out other benefits of a history education. Although important, learning history should not be just memorizing facts and dates. Students that practice history also learn how to question, use evidence to draw conclusions, and explain the significance of events in the past. This type of critical thinking can be applied to all subjects that a student is expected to learn. Yet the thing that resonated the most with me was the commentary on the papers. One presenter in particular, Kim Sebold from the University of Main and Presque Isle, spoke about her undergraduate history projects and the way those projects engaged and assisted the community around the university. Public historians have long touted history’s ability to bring together communities and give people a sense of shared history and belonging. A review of some of the titles of the sessions at this conference give that idea: “A Storied Community,” “Acting Locally: Making Critical Connections between Nearby and Faraway History,” and a working group on engaging community partners. But what happens when public history does not create a sense of community? What happens if the stories told in museums, historic sites, or classrooms create a sense of isolation? What happens if telling stories of “contested” or “controversial” history further fractures a community? A sense of community does not necessarily follow an understanding of history. Recognizing this potential for history to further divide or alienate people should discussed during planning for a public history project. Don’t forget the power of history—good and bad.

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