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Commentary: Path Through History Project Meeting

The Path through History project held its long-awaited kickoff conference on August 28 in Albany. An estimated crowd of 250-300 people attended the all-day program which included lectures, breakout sessions, regional reports, a reception at the Executive Mansion … and great food.

The plenary remarks were delivered by Ken Jackson. The title of his talk was America Begins in New York: New York State’s History in the Core of American History. His message successfully delivered what the title of the talk of promised.

Jackson noted how boring history can be when simply being a litany of names and dates that go in one ear and out the other. He criticized the lack of funding for historic sites (public and private) and noted that No Child Left Behind has hurt the teaching of the history. He did not specifically comment on the potential impact of the Common Core Curriculum on the teaching of history.

Jackson really warmed up when he spoke about a subject near and dear to his heart – the importance of New York in American history. He contrasted the successful efforts of Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, and Virginia in making Americans think of history of the United States beginning in those states. By contrast, New York, meaning the Big Apple is perceived as a destination to experience the present (like Las Vegas?). Neither the city or the state are generally thought of in the same way as these other states for their meaning for America’s past in creating this present in which we now live.

Jackson challenged the audience and the state to cooperate and coordinate to deliver the message of New York’s Path through History as America’s Path through History. We must overcome our divisions of upstate and downstate, public and private, academic and non-academic if we are to be successful in this project. We tell stories and we need to create New York’s narrative if we are to engage the public and teach the next generation.

Jackson then recounted numerous events, peoples, and people through which New York imprinted itself into the American historical narrative even though it doesn’t get the credit. The abandoned / reconstructed settlements of Augustine, Jamestown, and Plymouth dominate the textbooks while the still thriving Dutch settlement of Fort Orange where we met is barely mentioned. He went on to discuss a variety of places, people and movements, expected to be included in the Path through History project.

Interestingly one important event not noted to the best of my recollection was 9/11, an event not included in the current social studies standards since it occurred after they were written. As we limply remember the War of 1812 Bicentennial with its burning of the White House, we might to remember the few times in which America was attacked from abroad – the War of 1812, the Day of Infamy, and 9/11. I mention this to demonstrate that Ground Zero, which wasn’t identified as one of the priority sites by the New York region, is part of a thematic conception which goes beyond simply a listing of priority sites: the narrative of when we were violated. That, too is part of the story New York should tell.

During the afternoon sessions, Governor Andrew Cuomo reiterated some of these points without having heard Jackson’s talk. After a long, elaborate, and flowery introduction destined to remembered in history for millennia to come (you had to be there to appreciate this!), Cuomo spoke on a subject that clearly is personal for him. His father is a great admirer of Abraham Lincoln and that love of history continues to his son and hopefully to his daughters sitting in the front row who were touted by the NYC region chair for being on the right side of the technological divide compared to the rest of the audience.

Cuomo spoke about the many problems he faced when becoming governor and justified why he made history a priority from day one. Tourism is an economic powerhouse and we need to do a better job marketing our state. Channeling Jackson, he noted that one-third the battles of the American Revolution occurred in this state and Hudson was here before the Pilgrims arrived in Massachusetts. He feels completely justified in supporting public expenditures for history as an investment in New York’s future and announced $1,000,000 funding to be divided among the ten regions in the Pathway through History project.

For Cuomo (as for Jackson), history isn’t merely a dollars-and-sense issue. As people, we need to know who we are and why our world is the way it is. To degrade history, to degrade the study of history, is lose our past and not know our present. Cuomo then listed some of the social movements which originated in New York and which have transformed this county.

To recap some of the comments made by these two and project co-chair Mark Schaming, Director of the NYS Museum, New York has been a laboratory for American democracy and innovation…and we need to make it so again. The project is a work-in-progress with the goal of using the technologies of the future to illuminate the lessons of past so we can build a better tomorrow. We communicate in stories and we need to develop the narratives in our communities, our regions, our state (and our country) to bring us together as a people.

In the course of this day-long immersion into the Path through History project several thoughts came to mind which will be the basis for several posts to come as they are too much to encompass in a single writing. There are a few highlights I wish to touch upon.

1. One of the state presenters mentioned a figure of $5 billion for tourism revenue in the state. In the first regional presentation, the Western New York presented mentioned $2.2 billion for his region. Are these five counties really responsible for 44% of the tourism revenue in the state? These numbers seem squishy and if all 10 regions were to report, the sum of the parts would be greater than the whole. If, for example the Governor goes fishing in the Adirondacks and takes his family to dinner, is that heritage tourism revenue or recreational? If your region is blessed with IBM or GE, is that hotel tax from business travelers considered tourism revenue? If the Big Apple is about the present and not the past, as stated in the conference, then how much of the visitor revenue is heritage revenue if they don’t go to the priority sites, which do not include Broadway or the UN, identified by the region in its presentation? The metrics for heritage tourism revenue is a subject requiring clarification. [Note: See “The Heart of Fifth Avenue Shopping Is Edging to the South” (NYT 09/-5/12 B6) on international tourist shopping in NYC.]

2. During the round robin presentations by the regions, many spoke of the new technologies such as GPS and various apps which would be developed along with the 200-plus signs about to be installed. I was talking with one attendee at the reception afterwards and she marveled about the apps making her recent vacation in Pennsylvania more enjoyable. Of course, the apps didn’t cause her to decide to vacation there in the first place, they helped her navigate the area once she was there. There is a narrative, partially recreational which should not be forgotten, that brought her there. It is easy to be bedazzled by the new technologies and they make for highly quantifiable and visible visuals, but they are no substitute for developing the narratives, the stories we need to tell.

3. There was almost no mention of “paths” in the Path through History presentations. Everyone talked about sites which when listed can be a lot like the litany of dates and events approach to history which Jackson said made history so boring. Every region has architecture, landscape and the ten themes identified as part of the project. Each presentation touting that its region meet the criteria established for the project seemed like Powerpoint showoffing to the big boss. For a kickoff meeting this is perfectly understandable. It is also the easiest and simplest part of the project. Perhaps next time we will hear 10 unique narratives instead of 10 lists of priority sites. This issue is critical to the success of the project, at least as I envision it, and will be the subject of a future post.

4. The presenter from the Southern Tier challenged the Governor to mandate the teaching of history. Obviously this is an issue near and dear to my heart. During the conference, there was no, or little, mention of the Common Core Curriculum. Right now the NYSED is developing a new social studies curriculum which will define education in NYS schools for years to come. This subject is an ongoing one and has been covered in previous posts. It will resume in force with the resumption of the school year as the summer newsletter of the NYSCSS makes abundantly clear. Suppose the ten regions and the state develop history narratives, will they be taught in the schools? How will the unique narratives of the ten regions be reconciled with statewide testing? Will the reinvigorated SUNY that Cuomo identified as one of his goals teach the New York State and 10 regional narratives? Will social studies teachers be required to learn these narratives and visit these priority sites in order to be certified and to maintain it? As you might expect, this will be the subject of future posts. As a suggestion, I recommend, and there is some self-interest here, that each of the ten regions use some of the $100,000 funding to create Path through History Teacherhostels for their regions to address some of the very issues mention in points 3 and 4.

All in all, the Path through History project is off to a good start. Rome wasn’t built in a day to use an historical metaphor and every journey begins with but single step. The project will develop its own path as it seeks to determine its own identify. As the great Yogi said, when you come to the fork in the road, take it. One fork is the opportunity for New York to once again become a leader in America by creating a blueprint which other states can replicate that draws on the narratives of our past to weave the people of the present together in a community with unique stories to tell about their home and shared stories to tell about our common heritage as Americans. On the other hand, there is a fork whereby brochures, signs, websites, and apps become the end game in themselves and the only difference between Pathway through History project and the previous trails projects that so many in the audience already went through is the more expensive technology with dazzling bells and whistles. In future posts, I hope to offer suggestions so the journey of the Path through History is a successful one.

Peter Feinman founder and president of the Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education, a non-profit organization which provides enrichment programs for schools, professional development program for teachers, public programs including leading Historyhostels and Teacherhostels to the historic sites in the state, promotes county history conferences and the more effective use of New York State Heritage Weekend and the Ramble.

Photo courtesy Jay Heritage Center.

One thought on “Commentary: Path Through History Project Meeting

  1. Peter, I assume you were in attendance at the conference on Aug 28th, were you also a member of one of the PTH Regional Teams?
    While I agree totally with all that you say, you know that the purpose of the PTH is Economic Development not improved education for either teachers or students. It is aimed directly at Heritage Tourism growth within NYS. Heritage Tourism is huge in NYS but could be substantially greater. It brings in outside money, provides new jobs growth and delivers a boost to pride of place.
    I think NYS actually suffers from the fact that there are so many well documented sites and stories at every twist or turn in the road.
    Which should we feature, which theme should we promote when? I was really torn as I prepared my list of preliminary sites for consideration by the PTH initiative team. The truth is, serious history didn’t begin here in Wayne County until after the Rev War concluded. Even the Native Americans during pre-contact period didn’t settle here. So, our human history is very recent in comparison to other areas of NYS, yet it is still very difficult to pick and choose the themes and sites to include.
    As far as the PTH initiative is concerned, I am amazed that so much has happened so quickly. I think we had our first PTH regional meeting here in the Finger Lakes in May. After developing the criteria and then collecting the data for our nominations and submitting those recommendations by the end of July to the Executive Offices…the whole process was extremely swift from my perspective.

    Keep up the good work,
    Peter Evans

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