The history project – or – what are we doing?

Tenured Radical has an excellent post reviewing Gordon Wood’s review of Jill Lepore’s The Whites of their Eyes: the tea party’s revolution and the battle over American history.  Among the very smart things that she says about women’s voices and authority in the academy and historical fundamentalism, she says this:

the point of Lepore’s book, as I understand it, is that history is a highly public project whether we scholars like it or not.  It cannot be confined to the archival work, truth seeking and critical methods that we historians see as fundamental to our craft, and we have some responsibility to grapple with and shape those larger belief systems.  As the public latches on to history as a way of discussing their political concerns, they develop fetish objects.  For the Tea Party activists in particular, the Founding Fathers operate as fetish objects, as well as intellectual touchstones for a set of political beliefs that are at least as presentist as they are located in any coherent eighteenth century intellectual world.

In light of recent and not-so-recent attacks on the humanities, and history in particular as politically motivated drek by people in ivory towers, I think that it is important to talk about the “highly public” side of history, and the links between that, research and teaching.  In particular, I’ve been thinking about how, as a teacher of undergraduates, I can connect history’s “highly public project” with the content in my classroom, without reifying what TR calls historical fetish objects, while providing students with skills that they can use beyond the U.S. survey.

One of the teaching pedagogy panels at the AHA that really struck me talked about how, at the survey level at least, it might behoove teachers to focus more on analytical skills than narrative, that being able to place a source in a historically specific setting, to make arguments about the motivations of the author and the possible responses of the audience, will be a longer-lasting lesson than the battles of WWI.  I don’t think that it needs to be one or the other, but in my classes I am going to try to think more critically about historical skill sets that better equip students to engage with history vis-a-vis larger belief systems, like founding father fundamentalism.

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