Remembering the Future

Here’s the Psychology Today story that I read from in class today, pointing out that “Imagining the future involves the same capabilities as remembering the past” — indeed, that the two utilize “many of the same brain areas.”


Response Paper: Public History

One of the burgeoning fields in our discipline is called public history. It aims to straddle the divide between academic history and various “publics.” Before Easter you’re going to explore how public history is applied: first, through your visit to the Minnesota History Center or another public history site; second, by hearing from History Center exhibit designer Randal Dietrich when he joins our class on M 4/10. Then by noon on W 4/12, write a response paper offering your take on this field.


1. Start by reading a couple of definitions of public history, courtesy of the National Council on Public History. How is it different from academic history? Where did it come from? (In other words, what’s the history of public history?)

2. Then visit the History Center or another public history site with this definition in mind. As you tour, think about how the exhibits were designed: to what end? with what audience in mind? How do they reflect academic scholarship, but presented in a very different way than a monograph or journal article?

3. Then bring your questions to class on Monday, when you’ll get the chance to go inside the design process with Randal.


By noon on Wednesday, upload to Moodle a 300-400 word response paper in which you draw on this preparation in order to answer the following questions:

What are the most important opportunities and challenges facing public historians? How well did the site you visited overcome such challenges or realize the potential of such opportunities?

Provide specific supporting examples, from your site visit and from Randal’s presentation.

Note: unlike other response papers, this assignment will be worth 15 points. Ten will reflect the typical categories for response papers; to earn the remaining five, you need to demonstrate that you did indeed visit a public history site this week (either by accompanying me to the MN History Center, or by providing me with documentation of your visit to an alternative site). It is not sufficient to reflect on a site you visited months or years ago; I want you to enter one of these spaces with these questions in mind and look at them with fresh eyes.

A Council of Historical Advisers?

After World War II, a Council of Economic Advisers was established to provide American presidents with expert economic analysis. It now numbers some twenty government and academic economists.

Last fall two Harvard historians, Niall Ferguson and Graham Allison, recommended the creation of a historical equivalent:

Were a Council of Historical Advisers in place today, it could consider precedents for numerous strategic problems. For example: As tensions increase between the U.S. and China in the South and East China Seas, are U.S. commitments to Japan, the Philippines, and other countries as dangerous to peace as the 1839 treaty governing Belgian neutrality, which became the casus belli between Britain and Germany in 1914?

The council might study whether a former president’s handling of another crisis could be applied to a current challenge (what would X have done?). Consider Obama’s decision to strike an imperfect deal to halt or at least delay Iran’s nuclear program, rather than bombing its uranium-enrichment plants, as Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu hoped he might. Obama’s deliberations have significant parallels with Kennedy’s decision during the Cuban missile crisis to strike a deal with Nikita Khrushchev, rather than invading Cuba or learning to live with Soviet missiles off Florida’s coast.

Indeed, Allison and Ferguson don’t want to stop there. They see this council as helping birth a whole new branch of the discipline of history:

We not only want to see applied history incorporated into the Executive Office of the President, alongside economic expertise; we also want to see it developed as a discipline in its own right at American universities, beginning at our own. When people refer to “applied history” today, they are typically referring to training for archivists, museum curators, and the like. We have in mind a different sort of applied history…

Mainstream historians take an event, phenomenon, or era and attempt to explain what happened. They sometimes say that they study the past “for its own sake.” Applied historians would take a current predicament and try to identify analogues in the past. Their ultimate goal would be to find clues about what is likely to happen, then suggest possible policy interventions and assess probable consequences. You might say that applied history is to mainstream history as medical practice is to biochemistry, or engineering is to physics. But those analogies are not quite right. In the realm of science, there is mutual respect between practitioners and theorists. In the realm of policy, by contrast, there is far too often mutual contempt between practitioners and academic historians. Applied history can try to remedy that.

In fact, Harvard’s famous Kennedy School hosts an Applied History Project:

In the earliest days of historical writing in Ancient Greece and Rome, Herodotus, Thucydides, Polybius, and others viewed history as a vital teacher for statesmen. Into the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, historical knowledge maintained a central place in strategy and statesmanship, inspiring such leaders as Bismarck and Churchill. In more recent times, however, the history-policy relationship has atrophied. Today, policymakers too often retreat to facile historical analogies, while historians become more and more distrustful of policymakers’ misuse of their craft.

But Princeton professors Jeremy Adelman was among the many historians who wasn’t entirely sure that Allison and Ferguson’s idea was a good one:

Saving history and America at the same time means taking current problems, finding historic precedents from which we can learn, and bridging the gap between ailing mainstream historians and practitioners who need more informed coordinates about what’s going on in the world. That’s fine — good, actually.

But: It represents only one slice of what historians have to offer. What happens to pasts that are not so readily repurposed for the future as decided by today? Whose past gets summoned? And who is the past to serve if relevance drives the agenda, shakes up status differences, and allocates resources?

…Ironically, the historical ignorance that Allison and Ferguson rightly decry as saturating the Bush White House reflected prior campaigns to make history more current. After the Cold War, when big funders and universities bailed on training in foreign languages and learning about exotic parts (bundled in stigmatized and downsized “area studies”), they laid low our capacity to understand Others — precisely when that skill was about to acquire a whole new valence with the rise of China, the flow of Latin American migrants, and the transformation of the Middle East. Universities are still recovering from the narrowed vision of what they thought was happening to the world in 1989.

What do you think of the notion of “applied history”? Should the president appoint a Council of Historical Advisers?

“The Conscience of His Nation”: John Hope Franklin on Historians in Society

In a 1974 lecture at the University of Chicago, the great historian John Hope Franklin (1915-2009) lamented the existence of “some rather strange and quite unlikely notions of the role of the historian in society” — some propagated by historians themselves. For example, he complained that some historians have seen themselves as “[promoting] the interests of a particular political party”; one, Claude Bowers, was so good at doing that for Democrats that Franklin D. Roosevelt rewarded him with an ambassadorship.

John Hope Franklin

From the John Hope Franklin Center for Reconciliation

But while he found “essentially partisan and defensive” the notion of historians “supporting causes or offering explanations after the fact,” he did believe that historians could “assist in the search for solutions to difficult problems in the area of public policy,” since that reflected an interest “in how historical events can provide some basis for desirable change.”

(This seems to fit with what many of you see as the chief use of history: that it provides “lessons for the present.”)

As one example, Franklin recounted how he and other historians had helped NAACP lawyers argue key Supreme Court cases on desegregation:

The historians and lawyers were an unusually effective team. The historians provided data that traced the evolution of the concept of equality, with its culmination in the writing and ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment. They showed how the pre-Civil War views of the radical abolitionists dominated the egalitarian thinking of the framers of the Fourteenth Amendment. They were able to show, moreover, how the intent of the framers of the amendment had been frustrated and vitiated by the separate-but-equal doctrine which, the lawyers contended, was conceived in error….

Using the findings of the historians, the lawyers argued that the “history of segregation laws reveals that their main purpose was to organize the community upon the basis of a superior white and an inferior Negro caste.” (pp. 312-13 in Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988)

Woodward, Strange Career of Jim CrowLikewise, historian C. Vann Woodward wrote The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955) in order to demonstrate that “segregation was neither as universal in origin nor as venerable in age as many on both sides of the argument assumed that it was.” Franklin doubts that Woodward’s scholarship “converted many segregationists,” but it did make a “significant contribution to the discussion and, perhaps, helped to prepare the ground when the segregation statutes slipped largely into disuse after the passage of the Civil Right Act of 1964” (p. 316).

Since then, most government departments have hired historians, and other such scholars speak into important public policy debates, whether in Native American affairs or foreign relations (two examples Franklin gave in 1974).

Of course, this also means that historians sometimes serve as critics of their nation’s policies, but Franklin memorably concluded that

As a nation views its history and the various positions that it has taken, it is not difficult to conclude that its postures have been mixed and exist on several levels of morality. At times, in the case of the United States, at least, its public policy has been humane, healthy, and worthy; at other times, it has been bereft of many or any praiseworthy objectives. It is the function of the historian to keep before the people, with as much clarity as possible, the different lines of action that have been taken, the several, often complicated reasons for such action, and to point to the conflicts and inconsistencies, the contradictions and the illogicalities, and to the defects and deficiencies where they exist. One might argue that the historian is the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience. Perhaps that is too much to claim for the historian who, after all, is not in the business of protecting the morals of a people. But the historian, as the servant of the past, is in the best position to provide a rational basis for present actions. (pp. 319-20)

Do you agree with Franklin that “the historian is the conscience of his nation”? Should historians actively enter into debates about public policy?

Response Paper: History and Society

In Why Study History? John Fea contends that “one small way of cultivating the virtues necessary for a thriving democracy is through the study of history” (p. 117). After reading ch. 6 in Fea’s text and listening to Prof. Rivera’s talk on “History for a Multi-Cultural Society,” write a 300-word response paper by noon on Wednesday 4/5, in response to the following broad question:

Do you agree with Fea’s assessment of the role that history and historians have to play in American society? Why or why not?

You should engage with an idea or two from Fea’s chapter, but also incorporate some reflection on (a) Prof. Rivera’s talk and (b) your own experience/perceptions of American politics and society. Some further questions to consider: Do you agree with Fea’s diagnosis of the problems of American democracy? In light of what you heard from Prof. Rivera, do you agree with Fea’s emphasis on history cultivating certain virtues — or his chapter-ending critique of progressive activism detached from historical study?

We’ll continue this conversation via blog comments and then at the beginning of class on Friday.

Do We Learn Lessons from the Past?

Thanks to everyone who shared their comments the last couple days. I appreciate the seriousness and thoughtfulness that go into that virtual conversation!

But as with the first couple rounds of blog commenting, a fair number of people in class didn’t participate at all and are stuck with a 0/5 for that portion of their participation grade.

But in order to interrogate an idea that came up several times in the “usable past” discussion, I’m going to create a second chance for anyone to get partial credit for blog commenting this week… (of course, I’d also welcome contributions from those who already shared a comment on Thursday or Friday)

No later than the start of class on Monday, please share a short but thoughtful reply to the following question:

When have we learned a lesson from the past? Several of you said (in your response papers or blog comments) that this was perhaps the most importance “use” of the past. So, what’s a specific example of that theme: What was the lesson and how was it learned?

Learn More about Digital Humanities at Bethel

As you look at registering for fall courses, be sure to consider DIG200 Intro to Digital Humanities, which Prof. Goldberg will be teaching on Monday evenings (6-9pm) in the CC 325 computer lab.

Of course, you all got an introduction to the future of Digital Humanities at Bethel when Charlie joined us for our digital history unit. But if you want to hear more… he and digital librarian Kent Gerber will be giving a presentation in the Library next Tuesday morning (4/4) at 10:20.

Usable Pasts: Inspiration

As I read your response papers this week, the most popular “usable past” that came up was John Fea’s idea of the past as a source of inspiration (or caution). Three examples of that theme…

SHAWN: I see the past as a useful notion because why else do we have the ability to remember the past. It is useful because we have to past to remember and try not to repeat in the future. We see the past and learn from our mistakes so that when we move on in to the future we make bigger and brighter choices. …[John] Fea shares with us the idea that the past inspires us. Giving an example of how soldiers storming the beach at Normandy to William Wilberforce helping to end the slave trade to many more heroic things. Fea goes on in this section to expand this idea of being inspired and share that as we see these heroic events in the past us as humans get inspired and many times want to be better. While we see the past as a positive and heroic place, there still are negatives that are from the past that we dislike. Fea shares that the past is a useful “cautionary tale”, because it is filled with people and things that we do not want to repeat.This idea of hero is not secluded to someone famous, but to anyone in your life that you deem as a hero.

DUSTIN: [John] Fea talks about how people are able to use the past as a source of inspiration and motivation for present day life. He gives the example of his student Christina and the inspiration she received for her senior art project on Thomas Paine. Christina was able to not only find inspiration from the words of Thomas Paine, but also, it gave her the motivation to do her final art project on something that she was passionate about. History is full of figures and events that we can look to for guidance and also to serve as a reminder to the mistakes we have made in the past, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (Why Study History?, p. 33).

NELSON: …I grew up not knowing much of my family history; because of this I put a great emphasis on knowing the past, remembering it. In that sense the past is useful, it helps one understand how they got there. Perhaps more importantly to me is that the past is a source of motivation for me. Fea describes it as the “Inspirational Past.” Writers like Frederick Douglas inspire me to treat others equally, thinkers like Martin Luther King Jr motivate me to act peacefully, and other men like Hitler serve as a warning of what evils man can do. As Fea puts it, “Whether it is inspiration or warning, we can all draw lessons for the present by studying the past” (p. 33).

Is there a particular individual, group, or event from the past that you find especially inspirational — or cautionary? What problems do you see with the past-as-inspiration? How might McKenzie critique the idea of a “heroic” past? (see ch. 4 of The First Thanksgiving)

Usable Pasts: Identity

While many of your response papers this week warned against seeking an “escape into the past,” the value of seeking personal or national identity in the past resonated strongly — though not perfectly — with many of you.

SARAH: History may prove to be the most useful and avoid potential loss of value when used to assist in the formation the identity of a particular nation or group of people. Without a sufficient understanding of the past, the question of identity often becomes impossible to answer. Notions of freedom and liberty would not prevail in American society today had the events surrounding the American Revolution not developed into common and pervasive public knowledge (Fea, 37). Thanksgiving was responsible for the forming of a broad American understanding that all were immigrants at one time, although this idea was uniquely influenced by the fears surrounding the mass immigration of those from Eastern Europe at this time (McKenzie, 165). The past, when truthfully communicated, can inspire patriotism among the young (Fea, 38). But, although this use seems to hold more of a deeper application of usefulness, it can become controversial when events in the past are sugarcoated or seem to only focus on one aspect as a means of propaganda. This is demonstrated by the fact that Native Americans are not able to identify with the American corporate identity as immigrants and through presidents’ appeal to the Pilgrims to urge for soldiers to “fight for a better world for all” and for survival, forgetting that peace constituted an important value for the Pilgrims as well (McKenzie, 168). Despite the problems in this use of the past, its use as a national identity tool proves to get at a higher end than the mere consumerist mentality that characterizes the goal of many Americans’ efforts.

AIDAN: The most important place that people use the past is in shaping their identity. We are as a society very individualistic, and we do not like telling other people telling us what are identity or our character should be. That being said, everybody grounds their identity in something because it is really hard to have a baseless identity. The past gives us the best of both worlds. It gives you something to ground your identity in, but it allows you to still be individualistic, because it’s your past and you get to control it. Dr. McKenzie talks in The First Thanksgiving about how the holiday of Thanksgiving has been changed during the years from a religious holiday, to a family event, to a cultural celebration depending on our nation’s focus and identity. In the same way, we as individuals reshape our personal view of the past by highlighting one part of our history and putting less focus on other parts depending on the circumstances.

In your lifetime, do you think that the past has become more useful or less as a source of national identity? To what other kinds of pasts-as-source-of-identity do you personally turn? (e.g., Does the past shape your identity as a Christian? Or a woman or man? Or [insert other identity]?)