Americans don’t know much history, but we’re enthralled by it

History’s Real Stuff (Sorry, Miss Grundy) – New York Times.

This is such a cool piece in today’s New York Times.

Museum directors and curators increasingly sense opportunity — and profitability — in the low test scores that characterize Americans’ familiarity with their country’s history. ( “What do you call the high school history teacher?” asked Roy Rosenzweig, a professor of history at George Mason University who directs the Center for History and New Media there. “Coach.”)

Jokes aside, for “The Presence of the Past,” his 1998 book with David Thelen, Mr. Rosenzweig asked nearly 1,500 people, “What word do you associate with history in high school?”

The No. 1 answer: “Boring.”

The Presence of the Past is a book I became familiar with about 2 years ago. It’s absolutely fascinating. While we hate history. we are enthralled with our pasts. That feeling is mutual, across demographic and socio-economic and educational boundaries. We crave a connection with our pasts, and stories about our ancestors.

Yet Mr. Rosenzweig argues that if memorizing dates and place names hold little appeal, history museums still rate very highly with the American public. “What people say they’re excited about in terms of history museums is contact with real stuff of the past,” he explained.

They also want to find themselves — spiritually, socially and intellectually — among all that material, said Terry L. Davis, president and chief executive for the American Association for State and Local History, a national trade association for history organizations.

“In the visitation research that’s been done for many years,” Ms. Davis said, “the thing that we hear most is that people want to see something about themselves and that they trust information the museums are giving them even more than they trust what schools are telling them and even the stories their grandmothers are telling them.

“People want to see themselves in the exhibit. And the research done at individual museums suggests that when they do find themselves there, they fare much better.”

Museums are about making an intellectual and emotional connection with each visitor. When we do that, we create an opportunity for someone to engage in a life-changing experience as their present world collides with their past.

Simple concept with potentially profound results.


One thought on “Americans don’t know much history, but we’re enthralled by it

  1. Hey, I saw where one of the head honchos in history at Westark, I mean, uh .. U of A-Fort Smith, had an article in the new Chronicles of Oklahoma. Good for him. I’ve had a few of those myself. Very cool thing.

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