Erin Bartram: In the wake of Charlottesville, there’s been a renewed discussion about the place of “Confederate” memorials and monuments, or lack thereof. Historians of all stripes have written elegantly and persuasively in major newspapers and magazines and local weeklies, spoken at public events, popped up on news show roundtables, and generally done everything Karen Cox urged of us in her recent CNN piece about being historians in the public. But as Matthew Christopher Hulbert noted in his piece Why Historians Often Talk Past Their Audiences – And How We Can Do Better, we’re not necessarily changing minds, or even being understood. We might actually be making things worse. Today, we’re talking about Hulbert’s view of how historians and “the public” think of “history” differently, and consider the implications for teaching and public engagement.
There’s a ton in here and I barely know where to start.
David Mislin: So, this is not especially insightful. But can I just say that I find it weird that someone who claims historians talk past their audiences is a historian putting words into the mouths of the audience?
Erin: Nick Sacco’s comment urges us to think in that direction too.
David: I guess I just struggle with arguments that suggest there’s a coherent mass of people who have any sort of collective agenda.
Erin: I mean, the stuff that I found really useful in here was thinking about what “history” means to various people, and maybe some of it resonated with me because it’s the start of the semester and I’m having those conversations with students who have lots of different ideas about what history is.
David: I think Nick’s point about emotional v. intellectual is important, but I also think we risk over-thinking and over-analyzing this.
Maybe people like the monuments because they’ve always been there? Maybe people don’t like conflict and assume thinking about/talking about monuments will breed conflict?
Chris Bouton: I don’t think it’s that they like or dislike the monuments. I think it’s more the fact that they’re there and we as humans are skeptical of change
Erin: I mean, I think we need to note this: “When they worry about memorials to Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln coming down, they are actually worrying about losing their cultural – and nationalistic – bearings in the present.” Is he assuming a white public? Seems so.
Your argument, David, is a little more productive in helping understand why a significant proportion of black Americans don’t want the monuments down. I think the argument for this as conflict avoidance is a strong one too, though, as evidenced by every bit of human interaction I’ve ever had in my life.
Chris: There’s a status quo bias going on here. And historians have the harder argument to make. It’s much easier to say something should stay rather than be removed.
David: Well, right. I’m thinking about interactions I’ve had — and also imagining interactions I might have — with white people, and they seem to all come down to “I don’t want to think about race. Those monuments have been there for a while. Let’s leave well enough alone.” But to me that’s more avoidant than emotional.
Erin: What do we think of his argument that many people see these objects as “history” itself, and that taking them down is erasure?
David: That one seems more compelling to me.
Erin: I think historians agree with the first part, and have tried to emphasize that the monuments aren’t “history” of the Civil War, but of Jim Crow. We’re not saying we should pave over Gettysburg.
Chris: Right, but that’s a harder argument to make.
Erin: It’s why I think putting up images of the text on some of these plaques etc is important. Interrogate the objects themselves, ask people to look closely at a thing they pass by every day.
David: (Just to clarify the above: I don’t agree with the argument, but it is compelling to me that people hold it)
Erin: I think Peggy Noonan offers a counterpoint here, though. This article presumes a lot of good faith misunderstanding among people who support or are ambivalent about this issue. There is no way Peggy Noonan doesn’t know the history of Reconstruction. The same way the people who put up the monuments we’re talking about knew the history of Reconstruction. Putting those monuments up was a way to shape a narrative, and she’s doing the same, consciously.
David: Yeah, but I don’t think there’s any mistaking Peggy Noonan for a normal person
Chris: Does she though? Or does she subscribe to a Dunning version of Reconstruction? We heard Hillary Clinton spout the Dunning school last year.
Erin: But I think this is a problem a lot of the time – is this person completely ignorant, willfully ignorant, or malicious?
David” For Noonan, at least in the case of the current tweetstorm, I think she’s being malicious. She knew she was provoking academic historians.
Chris: I’m suggesting that there’s a generational factor to consider. This doesn’t preclude her other motives. In fact, it enhances them.
Erin: And we should be able to say that, as historians. We’re not just working against “ignorance” or “misunderstanding.” People lie about the past to gin up fear and gain power.
I guess sort of where I’m going here is a larger question for many in politics today – should we stop presuming some people can be persuaded? How do we know if it’s that people can’t be persuaded or that we’re not good at persuading?
Chris: That’s a chicken and the egg question.
In terms of the persuasion question, we will never convince everyone of everything. There are people who think the Earth is flat, or dinosaurs never existed, or vaccines cause autism.
Erin: How do we persuade some people to accept a past that forces them to confront the fact that everything they inherited – money and social power – came from the blood and labor of other people?
Chris: Well there’s the problem.
We think analytically/argumentatively. We’re trained that way. Most people don’t think that way. They respond to emotion/narrative. And defenders of the monuments have a simpler narrative. One that avoids that kind of reckoning with the past.
David: I guess my non-answer answer to that would be that people are persuadable, but not at the speed we would like.
I’ve definitely had the experience of students changing their views, but it’s happened over the course of their college career. They leave my class maybe inching in a direction but I don’t see it come to fruition.
I think that holds true at large. We can’t expect to persuade people overnight. We can just do our best to make facts and interpretations available to people, and trust that they’ll think about it over time. But that’s a process that takes years.
Chris, I think that gets to your point. We gradually need to build a different narrative for people. They might reject it emotionally at first, but gradually if they’re genuinely thinking things over (and I think many people are well meaning and do think about issues at least occasionally) they’ll start to think differently.
Chris: Right, we need our own narrative that is simple to understand initially and is bolstered by historical evidence.
Erin: I agree. Even with students who have that “aha” moment, it doesn’t mean everything just shifts all at once.
Chris: My point speaks to a broader issue with academia. That for as much as we call for engagement with the public, there isn’t a professional acknowledgement/recognition of its importance.
We say it’s important, but there’s no institutional incentive. It doesn’t help with tenure or getting a TT job.
Erin: And that means, I think, that we do it in a scattershot way. It’s why some people think this issue of monuments is “new”
We need the equivalent of the Union of Concern Scientists or the Agricultural Extension Service, but for historians.
David: Historians March for History? (only half-joking)
Erin: I mean, the “marches” are kind of a great example of this issue. It’s important that the Women’s March and Indivisible and all the rest are doing the long-term organizing. It’s what works in politics, in labor, etc, and maybe it’s the only thing that works here.
Chris: Yes, and we also direct our efforts towards one another, which means writing argumentatively and analytically. And in search of the next complex argument. That makes it harder for us to get out of our bubbles and speak to people who don’t think like we do.
Erin: Someone, maybe Honor Sachs, joked about having a “The Historian Is In” booth. But honestly, why not try that?
David: “The Adjunct is In” booth that we’ve had at Temple did wonders for raising awareness among the average student about the plight of contingent faculty…
Chris: Public historians, like those who work for the park service and in museums and the like, do this work already, but the CNN isn’t highlighting their work. Because when we talk about “public engagement,” we’re talking about older tenured faculty writing op-eds in the Atlantic
Erin: Is there a way to move that public engagement away from sites? To expand it?
Some departments have done a sort of antiques roadshow but having people bring in weird junk from their attics (I think John Fea wrote about this a few years ago).
David: But I feel like things like that just (the antiques roadshow example) just perpetuate the idea of history as static objects. Maybe that’s what you meant, Erin.
Erin: I mean, I was thinking about how we might think of that style of engagement without the objects or the museums or the historic houses.
I mean, the most common form of public engagement for me, besides teaching, is getting into random conversations with people at the library or the cafe where I hang out. Or with my hometown priest when I was home for Christmas, who I introduced to the 19th century New York bible controversy and changed his understanding of “prayer in schools”
David: I hate talking to people. I’m definitely the wrong kind of historian for this.
Erin: Hahahahahah I actually think I do it well because older white men assume they know as much as I do. I might be a trained historian, but they’re the sort who know what’s what. And then maybe they realize they don’t know what’s what.
[Addendum after the fact: I actually suspect this might happen more to me because men presume they can and should talk to any woman they encounter in a public space. They just don’t expect those women to have advanced degrees.]
Chris: How do you replicate the tangible nature of a house or object? That’s the question.
Erin: Do we have to?
Chris: If we want to replicate the things that make material culture appealing, then knowing why it’s appealing is useful.
Erin: Ah okay, I see what angle you’re taking now. Are the things that people find appealing about material culture actually the historical parts?
Chris: Right, that’s the question.
Erin: I’m thinking about the Newport mansions (Maybe Allison Horrocks can chime in later if she reads this)
Chris: Does seeing the objects themselves making the use of historical imagination (and then understanding) easier?
Erin: If so, can physical objects that are documents provide a bridge?
Chris: And we’re back to monuments.
David: Maybe what would actually move the conversation would be counter-monuments? Because I agree with what you’re both saying. People seem to connect more with objects. And objects have the added benefit of cutting out the historian as the obnoxious “expert” forcing their interpretation on people. (Though of course it’s not really that simple)
Erin: I was thinking the same thing. That is tossed out a lot by people who want to keep the monuments: just put up other monuments.
David: Yeah, my reason for suggesting it is different. I don’t especially want to keep the other monuments. But I wonder if physical reminders of the other side of the story might actually make people rethink the initial monuments.
Erin: And wonder why we didn’t have these monuments before.
Chris: What would you two consider a “counter-monument”? Just more monuments?
David: Yeah. To lynching victims, for example.
Chris: I’m going to do the academic thing here and press you to define your terms
Erin: Or some of the triumphant slave resistance monuments like we see in the Caribbean? (Also this)
David: Right, though I think non-triumphant monuments are also important. Or else there’s a risk of “well, see, everything worked out in the end.”
Erin: And put it right next to the Freedman’s Memorial.
I mean, here’s what I want to see, and what might move the argument forward in the public sphere: a Nat Turner memorial. (This is not an original thought, of course)
Because literally every argument that will be trotted out against it – against HIM – is one that you can make far more honestly about the people honored by Confederate stuff.
“But he killed innocent people” Were they innocent? And is that somehow worse than killing innocent people to preserve slavery?
David: Yeah, that’s a great idea.
Chris: There is a Denmark Vesey statue in Charleston, though his alleged plot never got off the ground, and though that statue commemorates his whole life and not just the plot
These are steps in the right direction.
David: Right. That is what we need more of. But memorials need to become ubiquitous
Maybe that’s something historians could do beyond Atlantic op-eds? Curating pop-up memorials?
Erin: Do the changes of suburbanization make this harder?
Chris: Yeah, some on the ground organizing.
David: I realize that sounds like a joke the way I just phrased it.
But rather than large-scale museums/monuments, which take forever to build and are bound by geography, have smaller-scale things that can be set up easily.
Erin: Some town in CT is doing something to mark where every enslaved person in town lived. Like the blue plaques in the UK. [It’s Guilford, on the Connecticut coast – the Witness Stones Project.]
Chris: It starts locally.
Erin: Sounds like a great project for history majors.
Chris: After all, who organized all those Confederate statues in the first place? Local Daughters of the Confederacy chapters and other orgs
Erin: Get the Ladies’ Auxiliary on the case!
It seems smarter to put energy into these sorts of things than to all try to write a big thinkpiece in the Atlantic
Chris: And will have longer lasting impact.
David: Well, there is a distinctly echo chamber feel to stuff like the Atlantic.
Chris: Well, in something like the Atlantic or the Chronicle, we’re not reaching anyone new
Erin: But if people could walk around their town and there were plaques embedded in the sidewalk in front of every house where a slave lived? That would do SO MUCH in New England
David: Even Made by History, which I applaud, seems to largely be turning out to be history-for-historians.
Erin: Agreed. I mean, monuments work because they’re in public space and they intrude. You can just not read that column.
David: Right — and they’re not mediated by someone that a lot of people are inclined to shrug off as an elite intellectual.
Erin: I have to run, but this also seems like a good place to wind down.
Chris: Yeah I think we’re done.
David: We have a concrete resolution!
Erin: We’ve put some ideas out there!