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State of New York State History

The Final Six Findings: Ending the History Peril

Nick Wallenda at Niagara Falls which I saw in person (The Times Tribune)

In this post, I review the final six findings and conclusion of Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service. Readers should keep in mind the relation of these findings to the history community as a whole including state, municipal, and private organizations.

FINDING 7: PRODUCTIVE AND ENDURING PARTNERSHIPS FOR HISTORY

When I read in this finding, “History in the national parks depends on cooperation and collaboration with others,” I nearly choked. How often have we heard this jargon platitude meaninglessly been recited over the years? Can you even count that high? Of course, cooperation and collaboration matter, and of course, they don’t happen except as an exception. At the New York State History Roundtable convened by State Legislator Steve Englebright on May 29, 2014, with the Deputy Commissioner of the Office of Culture and Education sitting next to the chair of the Regents’ subcommittee on Culture and Education, the repeated comment made again and again by multiple attendees was the prevalence of silos within the history community including the State Archives, State Library, and State Museum all housed in the very same building. I heard the word “silo” mentioned so often I thought I was attending a farmers’ conference.

The system is rigged against cooperation and collaboration. No one is paid to cooperate and collaborate. People are paid to so something at a specific site and not to work with others. There is no funding for “Pathfinders” in New York, for people to create paths through history involving multiple locations. When I was creating Teacherhostels/Historyhostels for weekend and week-long visits to multiple sites, I learned first-hand that as an outsider I was the only one bringing multiple private, municipal, state, and federal sites together in a cooperative and collaborative program. Naturally, then, I was curious to see what would be  recommended for the NPS while recognizing that it is a national organization of geographically distant sites.

Recommendations

1. Maximize synergies with the professional history community
2. Develop relationships with institutions of higher education or other cultural organizations in their areas
3. Partner with universities and history graduate students to conduct needed research
4. Go digital in partnership with other repositories of related archival information
5. Create k-12 materials

I would like to focus on the last recommendation since it is the most local. It also is the most varied as each of the 50 states has its own social studies curriculum and guidelines. Therefore it is necessary for the NPS and any other historic site to work with state education department, social studies councils, or local school districts depending on the geographical extent of the desired school market. It is a reasonable bet to assume that the Battle of Saratoga and the Erie Canal will at least be mentioned in a New York public school at some point. At what grade? For how long? In connection with what else?

Several years ago, I worked on a curriculum program on Eleanor Roosevelt with the NPS. Lesson plans were developed in a variety of areas as part of a traveling suitcase schools could request. My subversive question was how much time do schools devote to Eleanor Roosevelt? Rather than creating separate lesson plans, it might be more beneficial to see how her life intersected with the political, social, and civil rights issues which were studied more extensively. On the other hand, one elementary school teacher loved Eleanor and was determined to include her in her class. As an elementary school teacher she had more flexibility than social studies teachers. In hindsight, it might even have been better to have hosted an Eleanor Roosevelt conference combining talks, tours, and workshops on how to integrate her into the curriculum.

The same Roosevelt site also hosts and annual Teaching the Hudson Valley (THV) conference. I am not aware of comparable conferences in the other valleys of New York State or in the city. Perhaps there are in other states. Do NPS sites share best practices? Would other sites know what is being done in the Hudson Valley? Ironically, it occurs in the same room where the NPS staff and one of the authors of Imperiled Promise conducted a workshop on June 12, 2014 which started this whole sequence of posts.

As originally conceived, THV did exactly what the report recommended. It partnered with nearby Marist College. The speakers in the program included history professors and authors as well as NPS and National Archives staff on designated themes. The attendees were teachers and staff from historic sites. There was funding to support teachers pairing up with an historic site to visit, to create lesson plans, and to have class visits. That is not exactly what is done now, but the THV did implement some of the recommendations of a study that hadn’t even been written yet. But again, one key obstacle is the state-mandated curriculum along with the challenges of school field trips.

As an example, a recent post in New York History Blog by Bruce Dearstyne, author of The Spirit of New York: Defining Events in the Empire State’s History, notes that Philip Schuyler, father-in-law of current superstar Alexander Hamilton, is not mentioned in the New York State social studies curriculum at the grades 4 and 7/8 level. Dearstyne then writes about Schuyler as a figure in New York State history. He mentions this in connection with a newspaper article on the increased attendance at the Schuyler Mansion, a New York State historic site in Albany. After the battle of Saratoga, Gentleman Johnny Burgoyne was a “guest” of fellow gentleman Schuyler. In fact, Schuyler was a participant in the battle and had a second home right near the battlefield in what is today Schuylerville. That house is an NPS site and as I recall from visiting it as part of the Battle of Saratoga weekend Teacherhostel/Historyhostel, some NPS staff even live on the premises.

My point in mentioning these examples from personal experience, is to emphasize that the NPS is not operating in a vacuum. Right now history and social studies are a low priority in the k-12 curriculum compared to the Common Core. That initiative is about reading and math or in a more elaborate version, science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The idea that if people are interested in something then they might want to read about it has no place in educational thinking today. It’s not as if we are a storytelling species or that there are any stories to tell in our own communities. So while I digress slightly from the Finding, it is important to recognize the concerns raised are part of a larger dilemma. All the more reason why the NPS needs to join the conversation by attending the social studies and history conferences at the national and state level and to add its voice to the discussion about the place of history in the k-12 curriculum.

FINDING 8: TECHNOLOGY AND THE PRACTICE OF HISTORY   

Nine single-space pages are devoted to this finding even before the specific recommendations are made. At times like this I think of the municipal historians who don’t use email (at least for “work”) or the counties that don’t have enewsletters (almost all of them). Technology has changed information storage, information retrieval, and information sharing. It changes how history can be experienced and how people in the history field can remain in contact. There are bureaucratic issues. There are financial issues. There are “creatures of habit” issues.

The recommendations under this finding relate to training, website design, integrating databases, use of social media, apps. The key issue here is the need for topdown leadership. It is absurd to expect every historic site to reinvent the wheel. And unproductive.

FINDING 9: STEWARDSHIP AND INTERPRETATION OF AGENCY HISTORY

This finding refers to the history of the NPS itself, an organization which has now celebrated its centennial. Apparently there once was a position of bureau historian within the chief historian’s office. The consultants recommend it be filled and other actions be taken to document and preserve the histories of the individual sites.

FINDING 10: THE CONSTRAINTS OF BOUNDARIES, ENABLING LEGISLATION, AND FOUNDING HISTORIES

“History at many sites seems to be understood as having ended at the park’s creation and stopped at its boundaries.”  The authors ask the NPS to take a broader view. They laud the creation of National Heritage Areas (NHA). They like the way NHAs blur the distinctions between natural and cultural resources.

Shouldn’t each NHA have an annual conference for the history community within its region and with the scholars who address its theme?

FINDING 11: FIXED AND FEARFUL INTERPRETATION

This Finding notes the tendency toward “defensive history,” by which they mean a “certain timidity in the face of controversy or criticism.” The result may be a reduction of portraying “what really happened” (a history credo) to the recounting of some factual details. As one might expect, this condition relates particularly to Civil War sites and slavery. The authors fault the NPS for imagining there is a singular national inheritance serving as the “civic glue” for all Americans. Instead they tout the recognition of numerous, complex, often conflicting interpretations.

Besides timidity, there is another problem. Ironically the quest to be political correct, that is, sensitive to the various hyphenated identities, also can distort a story. While it is beneficial to include people other than dead white men in the story, the emphasis on the women’s exhibit or a black exhibit at an American Revolution battlefield obscures the historical reality of the dead white men who made that site a memorial in the first place. If you have ever watched AMC’s Turn about the spy ring from Long Island you will see it is a product of 21st century progressive values. Dead white heterosexual male John Simcoe, the founder of York/Toronto where there is a day in his honor, has become a vicious Darth Vader while historical housewife and mother Anna Strong has become a younger femme fatale with an enhanced role. The latter was a marketing decision announced before season 3 at a meeting at the New-York Historical Society with the production staff and “Anna” herself in attendance. But these very examples do reflect the ongoing nature of historical interpretation.

The authors cite a lack of coordinated approach to controversial interpretations.  They acknowledge that sharing authority with visitors would mean a change in NPS procedures. They then note the irony that historic sites often become historic sites precisely because they were not bland or non-threatening, but because there was something controversial going on at that site or by the person who was born lived, or died there. On a bureaucratic note the authors report that the NPS is prohibited from conducting formal surveys of visitors. Presumably that means here is an area where outside assistance may necessary unless the rule is changed.

The recommendations deal with various organization issues and the use of social media to get a better handle on the visitor perspective. Maybe there should be different tours for different viewpoints instead of the one standard tour seeking an e pluribus unum message. Why shouldn’t people who think 9/11 was an inside job, slavery was good for Middle Passage Blacks, and 5 million people voted illegally have their own tours? It is after all their own vacation. And why should people on vacation who believe otherwise be trapped in a tour group with those who differ? Don’t we self-segregate at home?

In a world where people are entitled to their own facts, the basic methodologies of history tours may need to change.

FINDING 12: CIVIC ENGAGEMENT, HISTORY, AND INTERPRETATION

The authors of the study embrace the function of civic engagement at NPS historic sites. “Indeed, the most exciting possibilities for civic transformation emerge at points where staffers and visitors encounter difference…people whose understanding of differences of history and civics differ from their own.”  They go on to write, “dialogue on controversial issues helps people develop new civic skills.” When was the last time you saw people dialogue on controversial issues? In Congress? On cable TV shows? At a presidential news conference?

Do the same people visit Civil War battlefields and Underground Railroad sites? Sometimes. Why? Do people get their news from multiple media sources with different perspectives or from one source? The NPS doesn’t operate in a vacuum so let’s not go overboard on the changes the NPS can affect in the American population’s understanding of American history. How much do professors transform students versus reinforce students’ views and that’s with an entire semester and the power of the grade at their disposal? The NPS should be thinking about other types of visitor experiences besides the 30-minute tour and viewing of exhibits.

CONCLUSIONS

The authors of the study Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service conclude where they began. They call for the dismantling of the elements of agency culture and structure that confine history and historians in small boxes separate and detached from the agency as a whole and from the larger field of professional history scholarship and practice. They champion the creation of the two councils:

1. The History Leadership Council
2. The History Advisory Board

and more involvement with the Organization of American History. During the course of their research, they learned that a similar study had been undertaken a generation earlier. They unearthed it covered in dust buried deep in the bowels of the NPS underground vaults designed to withstand nuclear blasts and requiring multiple passwords, fingerprint and eye retina examinations to access. Once they passed muster and read the report they were upset to see it: considering that it had been relegated to the dustbin of history, wasn’t their report also so imperiled? For a post-mortem on it, see the next post.

One thought on “The Final Six Findings: Ending the History Peril

  1. I have been a volunteer with the NPS for the past 6 years at the William Floyd Estate in Mastic Beach, NY. Things have gotten progressively worse as each year passes; I don’t say this lightly, or to just “pile on.” The site supervisor is in a world of his own. He’s been there for over 7 years and couldn’t give a house tour of the 25 room mansion if his life depended upon it. Of course, we’re busiest on the weekends when he finds it convenient to take the weekends off. I am always tempted to quit because it breaks my heart to see this 613 acre location go down hill, full speed ahead. When I complain to my congressman, he tells his aide who is good friends with the site supervisor’s boss at headquarters and, therefore, nothing ever gets done. As I stated earlier, this has been going on for years and the final results will spell disaster for this NPS location.

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