Response Paper: The Usable Past

In Why Study History? John Fea contends that most Americans, far from being disinterested in the past, are actually obsessed with it. “The past,” however, “must be relevant. It must be usable. Or at the very least, it cannot be useless” (p. 30). During the week, I want you to explore several versions of “the usable past” and write a response to this way of engaging the past. You’ll have a response paper due by noon on W 3/29, then continue the conversation up till class on Friday afternoon by commenting on blog posts.


1. Read ch. 2 in Why Study History?, in which Fea suggests different kinds of “usable pasts” that are common in American culture.

2. Then read ch. 7 in The First Thanksgiving, in which Tracy McKenzie explores the “cultural usefulness” (and, at times, “uselessness”) of the Pilgrims’ story — and why historical revisionism challenges such usable pasts.

3. Finally, spend some time thinking of where you see versions of “the usable past” showing up in present-day America. (Or in your family, church, college, or other communities.)


By noon on Wednesday, upload to Moodle a 300-word response paper in which you draw on this preparation in order to answer the following questions: (however you answer them, it should be clear that you understand the idea of “usable past” and at least two of its particular manifestations)

On balance, what do you think of the notion that the past ought to be “useful”? Why or why not? Are you particularly drawn to any one of Fea’s reasons for using the past? Which of those approaches do you find most problematic?

Provide supporting examples, from the reading (Fea and/or McKenzie) and from your own observation and experience.

NOTE: This is another response paper that’s meant to help you scout ahead for a future assignment. After Easter Break, your second group project will give you a chance to dive more deeply into one of Fea’s “usable pasts,” using examples from American popular culture.


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