We are a story-telling species. But what story should We the People tell? To create a national narrative for the 21st century is an awesome challenge, perhaps an impossible one given our divisions today. While few countries in the world have had one continuous form of government for 250 years, we are at a point where even to celebrate that event is contentious and divisive.
The challenge to create a national narrative is too daunting for an individual historian.
What then can be done?
I suggest to start at the very beginning a very good place to start and to take it one step at a time. For history in the United States that means the local historian and historical society. The local historians have walked their communities, seen the sites, heard the stories, and kept the documents. The creation of a national narrative should begin small.
Every local historian and historical society should tell the story of their locality from Ice Age to Global Warming. Nature sets the stage and humans write the play while altering the stage. The local historian and historical societies are the ones best positioned to tell the story of their own communities.
However, local historians and historical societies typically are not trained to tell this story. Most likely they do not want to tell it either. There are risks involved. For example, as people celebrated the centennial of women’s suffrage, imagine finding out what your great-grandfather thought about it! Suppose you are a descendant of some one who did something disreputable! Regardless of one’s theological beliefs, in the world of history sins are inheritable. So it is understandable why people do not want to delve into the past and to let sleeping dogs lie.
To create a national narrative starting at the local level, people need help. The history infrastructure needs investment and training, the local historians and historical societies need guidance. New societies need to be created. The current system isn’t working as well as we need it to work.
To illustrate the process, consider the situation here. By state law every municipality in New York is required to have an historian. This mean every village, every town, every city, and every county is obligated under the law to have an historian. The law frequently is ignored including in this county. Even when municipalities comply, they often provide the historian with no or minimal resources. A municipal historian typically does not have a municipal mailing address, email address, business card or place to work except at home. Imagine if the chief of police was forced to operate under the same conditions. In addition, the municipal historian is not funded for the dues to join the state organization of municipal historians or to attend the annual conference. The state provides no guidelines on what the municipal historian actually is supposed to do based on the population of the community and the technologies of the 21st century.
Historical societies face similar problems. Although they are chartered by the State Education Department just as schools and libraries are, they are not treated the same way. The schools and libraries are public organizations with government employees and receive state funding. By contrast, historical societies are private although they may operate in a municipally-owned building. The people are dedicated, hard-working usually volunteers who love what they do but need help. The New-York Historical Society and the American Museum of Natural History are not the norm. Think of the municipal historian in your own community if you have one or the municipal historical society to get a better idea of the challenges involved.
We need a new model for the 21st century. We need leadership from the state and federal governments on what should be done, the training to do it, and the resources to do it effectively. Where are the jobs for the public historian graduates? Where are the circuit historians who could serve five small communities each week? Why should we have to reinvent the wheel every time there is a major anniversary?
The musical Hamilton famously asks who will tell the story? Who will train the teachers in the history of their community, their county, their city, and their state? Who will develop the curriculum, the professional development programs, the walking tours? Who will identify the local history signs that are needed? Who will weave the neighborhood, county, city, and state, narratives into one? We need a We the People Will Tell the Story Funding Act.
From time to time, I have become aware of different history educations partnerships which have been created. These examples demonstrate what people at the grass roots level can accomplish. Two recent examples appeared in the newsletters of historical organizations which I receive. The third was via an email about attending a conference. Unfortunately I am not able to attend all the history-related conferences I might like to attend especially when it involves traveling meaning overnight stays. When I become aware of these partnerships one thing I do do is to suggest to the creators of such partnerships that they share them a local, state, or regional conferences both for history and social studies.
Case Study #1: Clinton County Historical Association/SUNY Plattsburgh
After reading in the newsletter about a college intern project, I contacted Helen Nerska,
Director, Clinton County Historical Association and received the following (edited) reply.
The Clinton County Historical Association has been working with SUNY Plattsburgh for many years. The interns have been from Museum Studies (a minor), History (a major), and Anthropology (a major). We have many examples of the significant contributions students have made to CCHA through the Internship Program. The relationship with the college has made a dramatic difference in how our mainly volunteer staffed museum has been able to move forward documenting our collections.
The benefits of having interns extend beyond their time here and our not limited to our site. They have set up exhibits at SUNY Plattsburgh based on what they learned at CCHA. They have presented their work as well. Two have shared their project findings with our membership and the public. One set up a new system to track our slide collection (this was major to us!).
The feedback from the participating students has been positive. At times, interns have returned with their parents to show them where they worked and what projects they were involved with. The interns stay in touch with us either just to say ‘hi’ or to do some volunteer work. There are organizational benefits as well. One joined the CCHA Board. Another is now working part-time as a collections assistant. There are more examples but these pop out to me because they are the most recent.
And additionally – we have a special relationship with Archaeology Professor Justin Lowry (and the two previous professors) with respect to our extensive Native American Collection and the availability of an actual Native American camp site for student hands-on study. We are also working with the local community college – Clinton Community College- to set up an internship program.
Outside of the internship relationship, we work with Gender and Women’s Studies, specifically on the County’s suffrage story. We will soon be publishing that Story which will include essays by four students from the 2017 class. We work with Special Collections insuring that any duplicate documents we might have in our collection are offered to them first.
This list of projects accomplished by these students is extensive and I am trying to keep this short – but I do agree our success story and how others can make it happen should/could be shared at a Museum Association of New York (MANY Conference). We provide the students with a valuable experience and they in turn help us, a small budget volunteer based organization, get our large collection (started in 1945) documented. Julie Dowd and I are hosting a Coffee Talk at the MANY conference this year (April 2019) to share with other small museums what can be done with little money and little or no staff. The internship program will be discussed with this group. And we expect to get some good ideas from others!
Case Study #2 Athena History Club (Middle School)
After reading about this history club in the Greece Historical Society & Museum newsletter, I contacted President Bill Sauers about it. He passed my message on to Andrea Brunette, the middle school social studies teacher and we spoke on the phone about this club. Needless-to-say, I was intrigued precisely because it was a middle school activity. [For a blog on a defunct high school program see Bring the Yorkers Back to New York. Imagine if there were statewide programs like that today!]
The school district has 12 7th grade classes located in two buildings. So once again, the project is not a district or even schoolwide program but one due to the passion and initiative of the teacher who spearheaded it. She does have the support of her principal.
The club is an afterschool activity which I did not realize at first from the newsletter itself. The initial activity involves the Greece Historical Society & Museum which is in walking distance from the school. The students meet with Bill Sauers and conduct research at the museum on local history.
The club also goes on bus trips. So far the Athena History Club has managed to obtain funding from local donors. These trips can go outside the local limits to the nearby city of Rochester. The students have one meeting prior to each field trip to outline what will be visited and what will be learned. The visits can include historic sites, civics related sites, and meeting with restorers at history preservation sites.
The questions one has to ask are why aren’t the other teachers also doing this and what would happen to the club if Andrea Brunette retired since it is not part of the curriculum? Still it is great to see middle school students visiting their local historical society, learning about local history, and visiting historic sites at the nearest major city. Wouldn’t it be great if all middle school students had such experiences?
Case Study #3 College Convenes Local History Conference
I learned about the third example via an email. Michael Oberg, a history professor at SUNY Geneseo initiated a one-day local history conference. As reported in the college paper Geneseo to host conference convening New York state’s local historians [thank you Google for facilitating this research]:
Distinguished professor of history Michael Oberg is pioneering a conference and initiative that is the first of its kind in New York state. The initiative works to link up local historians with students so they can work together on projects about local history.
Oberg specifies in his blog that the state is required to have hundreds of local historians within specific towns, but they are often passed over and not utilized for the valuable knowledge they have. Oberg is referring here to the requirement in New York State for municipalities to have an historian. That subject has been the topic of a number of posts over the years.
That reality has become increasingly clear to me over the course of this past year, as I began to survey the public history landscape in New York State. It is a shame. The academic history community has largely ignored local historians. As I began to meet local historians and talk with them, it struck me that we in the academy could be doing so much more and that we had overlooked an extraordinarily valuable community of historians doing extraordinarily valuable work.
Two specific action items related to the initiative are:
1. Internships for college students with the local historians to incorporate local history into their education
The conference brought together the potential interns, the college students, and the potential hosts, the historical societies, historical museums, and municipal historians. A panel was held to discuss how to make this internship program work. State historian Devin Lander participated as a panelist.
The college student response was positive. History adolescent education major junior Simon Goslin, expressed excitement for the program.
I’d say it’s a win-win for everyone involved, local histories are often neglected in the grand scheme of things by any of the higher academic fields. I know personally, I’ve done a little bit of local history in my town and I had a great time. It’s a really good way to have a community connection to the work you do. It’s a great way to network with people if you’re going to be looking for a job in the future, if you’re going to be looking for a career, as a historian, as a museum curator, as anybody who has a part in that.
To no surprise, Goslin added that his last contact with local and state history was in 4th grade.
2. Incorporating local history into the K-12 curriculum.
How to accomplish this goal will prove daunting. It will require action by the State Education Department both for the curriculum changes and the training/certification of teachers. It then will require new classes at the colleges possibly at both the undergraduate and graduate level. It also will have to occur at least in New York where there is no history advocacy organization to provide a venue to push for such changes. The closest such actions so far are in behalf of historic preservation and state parks (ignoring state historic sites) as reported in previous advocacy blogs. MANY has led the effort to fund busing to museums of all types, zoos, and aquariums only to have that initiative vetoed by the Governor after it finally had been passed by both legislative chambers. Effecting curriculum change on behalf of state and local history will be a challenge. Just as middle school teacher Andrea Brunette initiated the middle school history club without it becoming part of the curriculum or adopted by the other 12 teachers in the school district, so Oberg is one professor at one of over 60 SUNY colleges in state. In theory, the SUNYs, CUNYs, and even private colleges could follow this example. That certainly would generate some grass roots support.
In the meantime, Oberg presses onward. This summer begins a new class, Local History Workshop. The goal of the course is to pair Geneseo’s students with a municipal historian or a local historical society to work collaboratively on a project or proposal that will engage the public. As Oberg said:
Together, we can do important work to educate New Yorkers about their state’s diverse and rich history. Students will benefit from the hands-on and high-impact learning experience work in a public history setting can provide, and local historians will benefit from the skills and the energy of our fine students will bring to their cities and towns.
In a recent email, Oberg wrote that the Geneseo Center for Local and Municipal History in the process of being created. May it be the first of many such centers.