Unit 4: How the Public Understands the History
Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the Past
What do Americans know and think? Be it coin collecting, scrapbooking, or taking trips to the museum, many Americans want to know about the past in some form. While interviewing a cross section of Americans, the survey “illuminated a conclusion that underlies the entire book: people pursue the past actively and make make it part of everyday life.” (18) Reading books or watching films about the past are two of the top ways we use the past in everyday life and it seems like everyone pursues the past in some form. Many of the interviewed people wanted to understand where they come from or enjoy building their family tree. Others wanted to know about their family history to find medical information. Most of the people surveyed “made their families the starting places in their quests for identity.” (50) Ethnic heritage and culture were also legacies that people wanted to connect with. There were a lot of varied opinions about events in the past. While some people concluded that no progress has been achieved and we are just as barbaric today compared to the past, others mentioned how far we have come in terms of medicine and health practices.
Wars like Vietnam and the Gulf War of 1991 were a common fear that could disrupt a family legacy. One lady told of her personal experience protesting the Vietnam War and explained how “people can really effect change.” (77) Events in both larger society and personal lives like landing on the moon expanded one man’s mind. (76) Although people had different views about events that shaped their life, the surveyors found that most people reflected on turning points. The birth of a child, sudden tragedies, and marriages were the most common turning points.
Native Americans and African Americans seemed to be interested in their culture more than European Americans. One Sioux man from the Pine Ridge reservation explained that understanding family history allowed one to “move on to the history of your ethnic group.” (54) For many people, cultural identity can be stronger than family ties. Many people said that children should be taught black history from their families as well from school. Something that was startling to the surveyors was the fact that “black Americans constructed a story of of progress when they looked at the past- a rather traditional story that was hard to find among white Americans.” (159) The Oglala Sioux also had a very strong sense of group identity and when asked what most affected them, many answered with Native American history like the massacre at Wounded Knee. It is interesting but not surprising to learn that “not a single white respondant cited any of these events.” (164)
While reading the “Afterthoughts” chapter, it seemed like most people wanted to pass down traditions to their children. Historymaking, according to the surveyor, was intensely intimate, and basically, Americans might say they do not care for history but they do care, they just might not realize it.
After visiting the Baron Von Munchausen House, concern over historical “facts” turned into a “blistering reply” that was shocking to read. Oh My Von #$!. I realized I was reading her response with my hand covering my mouth and one eye closed. Since “slavery was at the heart of the Munchausen’s world,” then it should be at the heart of the tour.
I am embarrassed to say I really did think people were shorter during the colonial period.
The Facebook page definitely confirms Rosenweig and Thelen’s study. With nearly 15,000 members, pictures of Wolffy’s hamburger joint and the World’s Fair seem to be fan favorites. Many of these fans may not be history buffs but the pictures bring a sense of identity; they engage Spokanites as active participants in their own history. Expo ‘74 is part of my family’s national past. My uncles recall it at every get together and the memories have become part of my past, even though I was not yet born. This is in line with Rosenweig and Thelan’s study that “among those who selected national events as the most memorable of their lives, two thirds talked about them as things they had experienced and engaged for themselves, on their terms.” (124)