Tag Archives: Historiography

Musing on Teaching: Post Script

Today, I was assigned to read “The History Curriculum in 2023 by Mills Kelly. In it he argues that the future of history education should include Making (3D printing, video, ect), Marking (coding), Mining (data analytics) and Mashing (combining media). In many ways this curriculum reflects the concerns and philosophies of past history professionals.
From the beginning of the article, Kelly situates himself in century-old conversation of how to teach history: “I’m not a fan of those who simply predict doom without offering possible solutions.” This statement immediately reminded me of the silences offer by Beard and Becker at the end of their impassioned speeches about the faults of history education when it came time to offer redresses.
In his introduction Kelly writes, “Just to be clear from the outset, I am not going to propose what the content knowledge of that curriculum ought to be.” Which immediately reminded me of Orrill and Shapiro’s description of history education philosophy. For many years, particularly after WWII, content knowledge dominated the class room with procedural knowledge taking a back seat. Continuing into the 1990’s, content was to be standardized. Although historians generally resisted this, policy makers demanded that K-12 students know basic historic facts. Much in the mode of pre-standardization historians Kelly argues that content should be developed on the local level, in direct opposition to the current educational environment of ETS testing.
The crux of his argument, however, is not between content and procedure, but about what students need to navigate their world. This aligns with Becker’s “Everyman His Own Historian.” The job of history educators is not to fill their students with facts, but arm them with skills they need to navigate their lives. Although Becker’s arguments are far more esoteric, while Kelly is attempting to teach skills needed for placement in the American workforce of the future, Kelly is certainly an inheritor of this mentality. 
Agreeing with all of the literature so far surveyed, Kelly believes that students do not want to be in history class. He draws a contrast between excitement in science and the boredom in history. His solution to this lethargy is increased engagement with the process of history, which has been a recurring theme in these readings. His solution builds off McClymer’s guidelines in “Teaching and Learning with New Media.” McClymer advises that teachers integrated the digital world into the classrooms and Kelly offers a method.
The problem with Kelly’s four M’s is that of assessment. He is not in conversation with Wineburg’s “Crazy for History.” I can imagine that, like Wineburg, Kelly does not support standardized testing as a profitable way of measuring ability. His solution, however pragmatic it might sound, does not address how he, or ETS, would assess historical ability. Although I agree that learning to code will serve students very well in the future market place, it won’t serve them in passing the SAT history exam. 

Some Opening Thoughts on Public History

The opening reading of my “Digital Public History” course cut right to core methodological and theoretical concerns in Ronald Grele’s 1981 “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?”1. As I read his article, followed by excerpts from Denise Meringolo’s 2012 Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History2 I was struck by how familiar the debates between vetted university historians’ and government works’ claims to legitimacy felt to those I’ve experience in archaeology. The concerns were also remarkably similar in regards to the questions, “Whose Public? Whose History?” I was quickly reminded that the stark separation of archaeology and history is unique to America, and that I what I think of as Public Archaeology is essentially Public History.

I first want to consider the question “Whose History?”. Both authors outline the struggle between academic historians, federal employees and amateurs. Grele feels the field of public history challenges the assumption that history is owned by experts who write it, “[Public History] promises us a society in which a broad public participates in the construction of its own history.”3 Meringolo charted several answers to this question throughout the formative years of Public History. In the late nineteenth century, the first local historians emerge claiming ownership from the traditional keepers in academia4.  The Park Service, under the New Deal, granted government claim to the keepers of history as federal historians guided the public through the history contained in the parks. After World War Two and the growth of suburbia, the public history of the Park Service came to cater to the history of white middle-class visitors5. In her concluding remarks that public historians, “come from a long line of public servants,” she suggests that everyone owns history and the job of the historian is to assist in the construction of that past6.

I was confronted this question in my very first “Introduction to Archaeology” course seven years ago, but phrases as “Who owns the past?”. The issue was even stronger in my “North American Archaeology” course. I think the idea of owning the past is more tangible in archaeology because there are physical objects at stake that individuals, communities, and institutions have custody. The laws governing material cultural ownership are so voluminous that several institutions offer Master’s degrees in Cultural Resource Management Law, and those only take domestic law into account. As I progressed through school there seemed to be the idea that everyone owns the past, just some more than others. Having finished my graduate studies, entered into the private sector, and finished these introductory readings, I currently think that the past is owned by whoever cares to own it. Although I believe as a professional involved in history interpreting that everyone has an ideological stake in the past, I’ve come to understand that, practically, only people who really seek history have defendable rights to it. Perhaps one of the jobs of the public historian is to convince parties that should be interested that history is theirs.

The question, “Whose Public?” is a novel one to me. I have honestly never thought of anyone possessing a public, and the question made more sense to me when I replaced “public” with “audience.” If am the expert, then potentially other historians who do not know the material as well as I do are my public. I sense an understanding that “public” really means “people do not have expertise.” I rather like this idea of public, because it includes the often intellectually marginalized amateurs7.  I think of my public as anyone how might be interested in my work.

Grele identifies the historian’s three main publics: the “literary middle class” (traditionally termed “the public”), undergraduate students and other historians8. In Maringolo’s historic narrative, the public is largely National Park visitors. Reading through their concepts of “public” I realized that anytime I consider the term I unconsciously assume Americans, even though I study North African archaeology. The realization that I feel more comfortable inserting myself into a Tunisian town for five weeks- then writing about the artifacts in English, in venues that the French speaking Tunisian academics, let alone the boys who carried buckets along side me, would find difficult to access- than identifying ceramics of my home country, was a humbling and rather embarrassing thought. It certainly motivates me to practice my French.

Finally, the million dollar question, “What is the goal of Public History?” Maringolo has quite the grandiose vision for the future, “In the same way that nineteenth century scientists worked to temper the anxiety generated by social change, so too can twenty-first century public historians ease fears regarding the future of the nation.”9 Grele’s answer is less poetic, but takes on a similar optimistic tone, “Thus the task of the public historian, broadly defined, should be to help members of the public do their own history and to aid them in understanding their role in shaping and interpreting events.”10 I very much like Grele’s response and wish I had thought of it. Seeing as only 16.6% of historians work in university settings (according to a 2008 survey by Public History Professionals), historians are in a good position accomplish this task. I think public history is achievable only when the practitioners are actively engaged with the public and not isolated among their peers (whether they be fellow academics or federal employees).


1.The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981): 40-48.
2. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012.
3. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):48.
4. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012: xiv.
5. ibid. 164.
6. I learned more about Native American material culture and how to identify it from the two amateur archaeologists assisting the dig than I did from the graduate student supervising us. Who else teaches budding archaeologist what a “leverite” is? (leave ‘er right there- it’s just a rock.)
7. ibid. 168.
8. Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):42.
9. Prologue and Conclusion to Museums, Monuments, and National Parks: Toward a New Genealogy of Public History. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012: 168.
10. Grele, Ronald. “Whose Public? Whose History? What is the Goal of Public History?” The Public Historian 3.1 (Winter 1981):47-48.