Public History and Light Bulbs

Author Stephen Vizinczey observed, “We now have a whole culture based on the assumption that people know nothing and so anything can be said to them.” Ask those working at museums and historic sites about their in-the-trenches experiences. The replies may make you wince, smile, or simply shake your head in disbelief.

Jamestown Island, with James River beyond (Lisa Heuvel)

An interpreter was asked at a historic site overlooking a river, “Is that real water?” All kidding aside, how much do Americans know about their nation’s history?

In 2010, the Marist Institute for Public Opinion gauged 1,004 US residents’ knowledge about history and civics education in a telephone survey reported in The Washington Post. One standout result was that seventy-four percent of those surveyed knew that the US won independence from Great Britain. Of the twenty-six percent of those surveyed who did not, six percent of those respondents named other countries including France, China, Japan, Mexico, and Spain. Twenty percent were “not sure.” The table with data about this question breaks down the responses by region, income, race, age, and sex.

In comparison, the 2006 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)  indicated that “about two out of three American students at grades 4, 8, and 12 have at least a basic knowledge of civics.” The assessment evaluated results from more than 25,000 students in grades 4, 8, and 12 nationwide. The 2010 NAEP was administered in more than 1,300 schools nationwide and will be released this year, with many in history and social studies education waiting to see how the data compares to that of 2006 and 1998.

So those who spend years and decades honing historical knowledge plus their interpretive and performance skills face continuing challenges that mirror  how history and social studies education are faring, and how popular culture and other societal trends evolve. Some veteran knowledge workers resign themselves to correcting misconceptions; just ask interpreters who answered questions about “talking trees” after Disney’s Pocahontas.  Or interact  with people who are virtually out to lunch on mobile phones.

Eventually, some leave the field of battle for other professions. Others persevere because their inner sense of excellence demands it. And, there are those who keep the faith:  One colleague used to say she “worked for light bulbs.” Those were moments when in a steady stream of people on a crowded day, she saw a flash of insight cross someone’s face. Maybe that is the Holy Grail of history, whether it is at a museum, historic site, or in a classroom: that one by one, we make a connection, and a difference.


One response to “Public History and Light Bulbs

  1. Teachers, confined by the SOLs, are regulated to dates and miss the opportunity to teach about people, places, and things as they occur in their time (not in the terms of today.

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