Friday, September 5, 2008

What is Public History?

The debates discussed in these two articles remind me of the long standing argument of what is history: a social or hard science. John Gaddis, in “The Landscape of History,” discussed there not being a single dependent or independent variable, experiment and outcome would not work in the discipline of history. He states “Historians are prepared to acknowledge tendencies, or patterns” or “intersecting variables.” As to within the historical community there is a question of what public history is? The National Council on Public History, in Cathy Stanton’s article “What is Pubic History,” drafted a definition stating "Public history is a movement, methodology, and approach that promotes the collaborative study and practice of history; its practitioners embrace a mission to make their special insights accessible and useful to the public." Dissecting this definition has brought me to the viewpoint that public history is a methodology and an approach, but a movement I could not agree with. Although, Denise Meringolo makes a good case in describing her position as a “community organizer” galvanizing communities to “push its own sense of boundaries and exclusiveness,” I am not sure I agree. The works of historians, in the varied forms of articles, exhibits or museums, should enlighten and inform the public on particular themes or areas of study. Public history is the medium in which this conveyed to participants and patrons. However, it can be coupled with the communities or societies in which historians study as viable for historical references such as personal accounts. It is after reviewing the materials or experiencing the exhibits, a community is either compelled to respond in the form of protest or community revitalization.
Katherine Corbett and Howard Miller’s definition describes public history “as a joint endeavor in which historians and their various publics collaborated in trying to make the past useful to the public.” Corbett and Miller’s article, “A Shared Inquiry into Shared Inquiry” provides countless examples when historians, utilizing the public history approach, adopted or rejected the shared inquiry, shared authority model. Often in the development of historical projects, historians, with their academic training and scholarly research, disregard the viability of the general public as a form of reference or as an authority. The project to create instructional materials that would infuse national and local history in the American history classes of St. Louis secondary teachers proved to be a lesson in shared inquiry and shared authority. In spite of the team’s original sources, lesson plans and support materials, teachers did not have the equipment to support high-quality graphics of original document or simple student-teacher paralleled textbooks. The group of historians did not include the authority, St. Louis teachers, in the curriculum development process. Though revisions were made and the curriculum is a model in the St. Louis area, historians oft times disregard the history that is closest to them: the public.

No comments: