- Paperback: 320 pages
- Publisher: Columbia University Press; 1st edition (April 15, 2000)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0231111495
- ISBN-13: 978-0231111492
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 1 x 9.2 inches
- Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
- Average Customer Review: 11 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #284,632 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Presence of the Past Paperback – April 15, 2000
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Rosenzweig and Thelen have raised imaginative and important questions. They have written an important book that all historians should read and debate. (Richard White, Stanford University Journal of American History)
This book has less to do with history than popular sociology-- and seems to have begun with a thesis and then proved it. (Journal of Popular Culture)
A fascinating study. (Library Journal)
About the Author
Roy Rosenzweig is professor of history and Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. He is the author of several books including The Park and the People: A History of Central Park (with Elizabeth Blackmar). He is also the coauthor of Who Built America?, a two-volume multimedia CD-ROM.
David Thelen is professor of history at Indiana University and editor of the Journal of American History. He is also the editor of Discovering America: Essays on the Search for an Identity, and the author of several books including Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television.
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It's as if those who bemoaned the mathematical illiteracy of the American public were suddenly challenged by a survey noting that virtually all Americans could read house numbers, tell the time, and make change while using a calculator. These hypothetical respondents would probably also criticize their teachers for burdening them with irrelevant information.
Because the majority of the Americans surveyed for Presence of the Past have little sense of history outside their family or group, their knowledge of broader history is both sketchy and distorted. Rosenzweig and Thelen celebrate the fact that Americans put more trust in museums than in books for their knowledge of history, but such a faith only demonstrates naivete about museums. (In the wake of the Enola Gay fiasco at the Smithsonian and a subsequent symposium of articles in the Journal of American History, one JAH reader noted that the "true tragedy" was that "both sides believed that the people who saw the exhibit would be swayed, unquestioningly, by the 'facts' presented to them and that the visitors would not stop, even briefly, to think of possible biases in the exhibition itself, let alone about WWII-i.e. that they would think critically. Unfortunately, because of the state of education in this country, I agree with them.")
Using such a low common denominator to define history also reveals that those with the most congruent view of the past are "evangelicals" (defined by Rosenzweig and Thelen as Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses as well as Protestant fundamentalists and evangelicals). Thelen notes that the appeal of evangelical religion is so powerful "that it seems the most likely common ground on which some respondents from different cultures can recognize each other." "What," asks Rosenzweig, "does a largely secular group like historians have to say to them?"
The authors' greatest fear is that the "privatized and parochial past" of their informants will not support history as "a vehicle for social justice" or inspire people "to work for social change in the present." Not to worry. Ignorance, parochialism, and naivete are a fertile soil for those who wish to use "history" as a tool to promote social and political agendas. "Black Athena" and its kin are only a recent example.
Awareness of one's own past is helpful (we often call it maturity), and extending understanding of the past to the lives of one's relatives is even better. But without an appreciation of the broader past, democracy is in danger. Much of what passes for present truth is, in the words of C. S. Lewis, "merely temporary fashion. A man who has lived in many places is not likely to be deceived by the local errors of his native village: the scholar has lived in many times and is therefore in some degree immune from the great cataract of nonsense that pours from the press and the microphone of his own age."ÿ
In "The Presence of the Past," however, the authors take a different approach to looking at the hold history has over us. In this important book they note that much of the consciousness of the past is more about collective memory of close and local events than about the overarching national master narrative. Collective memory is a powerful force for any person and group. Through linkages with such memory we identify and define and connect ourselves. Rosenzweig and Thelen see an intensely personal relationship with history among Americans. They note that far from Americans being disengaged from history, as has been routinely thought because of their detachment from national themes, most people have supplanted interest in these broader themes to the history of family and locale. Indeed, Rosenzweig and Thelen insist that Americans "pursue the past actively and make it part of everyday life" (p. 18). Tellingly, they find that no more than 24 percent of their sample answered that the history of the United States was the past they felt was "most important" to them, as opposed to the 50-60 percent who identified a more intimate past as central to their lives. The authors include considerable evidence to support these assertions, breaking down survey answers by ethnicity, education, and other indicators. While Thelen laments this development, Rosenweig is more optimistic about its implications for the cause of history in the twenty-first century.
Their findings are borne out by my own experience as a curator at the Smithsonian Institution's National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., and I see this concern for local and personal history expressed by visitors routinely at the museum. The National Air and Space Museum is the most visited museum in the world, and it certainly seems that an important part of its attraction is the result of the immediacy of the subject that it interprets. Repeatedly, visitors come looking for an artifact to which they, or a member of their family or a friend, had a personal connection. Steve Lubar, who curated the "America on the Move" exhibit at the National Museum of American History in Washington made the same point by observing that for all of the exhibit's otherwise spectacular features, the majority of visitors only really pondered its later parts where their personal memory allowed them to connect to the artifacts and story in a deeply personal and idiosyncratic manner. He noted that of the 15 sections of this exhibit, most people breezed through the first 12, and mostly stopped for extended periods in sections more recent in time and with artifacts, such as the Chicago elevated rail car or a used car showroom from 1949 or a traffic jam with numerous recent vintage and quite cherry automobiles to which they had a relationship. Dik Daso, a curator working on "The Price of Freedom" exhibit also at the National Museum of American History, similarly remarked on the popularity of the Vietnam War section of the exhibit as veterans attending the exhibit's opening ignored most of the artifacts and gathered around a large map of Vietnam and shared their experiences with one another. Their stories, furthermore, were highly personal; interlinking spheres of memory to find common ground in an unlikely setting. Like politics, to paraphrase Tip O'Neill, all history is local. That may be the fundamental message of "The Presence of the Past."
This begs the question, how do teachers of history relate larger themes in the American past to the intimate interests of those who must understand and hopefully use it? This is critical to the education of the next generation of Americans, but it is also important for the lifelong non-classroom learning that every individual is involved in. What might museums, historic sites, television documentaries, written histories, and related efforts do to help focus interest and enhance the diffusion of greater understanding? At least some of the answers revolve around the closer linkage of national and world history with personal and local concerns. How to accomplish this most expeditiously, of course, presents a challenge not without difficulties. But it is noble task, and I applaud those who undertake it.
The findings in this book help us to understand the complexity of the issue. Read and ponder, discuss and act.