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The Presence of the Past

by Roy Rosenzweig

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1571129,203 (3.27)5
Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, or stitch together patchwork quilts in a tradition learned from grandparents. Each of us has ways of communing with the past, and our reasons for doing so are as varied as our memories. In a sweeping survey, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen asked 1,500 Americans about their connection to the past and how it influences their daily lives and hopes for the future. The result is a surprisingly candid series of conversations and reflections on how the past infuses the present with meaning. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and create continuity, people chart the courses of their lives. A young woman from Ohio speaks of giving birth to her first child, which caused her to reflect upon her parents and the ways that their example would help her to become a good mother. An African American man from Georgia tells how he and his wife were drawn to each other by their shared experiences and lessons learned from growing up in the South in the 1950s. Others reveal how they personalize historical events, as in the case of a Massachusetts woman who traces much of her guarded attitude toward life to witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television when she was a child. While the past is omnipresent to Americans, "history" as it is usually defined in textbooks leaves many people cold. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that history as taught in school does not inspire a strong connection to the past. And they reveal how race and ethnicity affects how Americans perceive the past: while most white Americans tend to think of it as something personal, African Americans and American Indians are more likely to think in terms of broadly shared experiences--like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the violation of Indian treaties." Rosenzweig and Thelen's conclusions about the ways people use their personal, family, and national stories have profound implications for anyone involved in researching or presenting history, as well as for all those who struggle to engage with the past in a meaningful way.… (more)

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“Presenting the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life” answers the question, how do Americans outside of academia relate to history. In fact it sprang from a conversation at the 1989 annual meeting of the Indiana Humanities Council someone asked just that question. From that question sprang an in depth telephone survey and, eventually, this book. I first learned about this book from a list of required readings for a graduate program in public history and, although I cannot say that I found all the results surprising, I can see why it was on the list.

Americans do not expect the history presented in movies and television, even documentaries, to be accurate. People in the survey commented that as entertainment there was a need to compromise accuracy for dramatic effect. No surprise there. History taught in secondary school was despised as being boring and irrelevant, again no surprise, but history teachers, those who were willing to discuss topics outside the narrow presentations found in their textbooks, were rated much higher than the classes they taught, a distinction I did not expect to see.

The average American is experienced at “doing history”. That is they take experiences from the past, theirs, their families, and what they learn from sources they see as reliable, and integrate them into the decisions that they make. I doubt that the interviewees would identify the critical thinking they did in considering the past when making decisions as “doing history” it is the skill history majors sharpen in order to “do history”.

It has taken me almost two week to write this review. I kept wondering off on tangents about how this book explains the effectiveness of various museum exhibits I have seen. I honestly wish I was in a classroom setting and able to discuss this book with other public history wannabes. Which explains why this is on a graduate school reading list and why I enjoyed it so much. If you are at all curious about how others relate to the past you should read this book. If you are a humanities teacher, you need to read this, it explains what your students will consider relevant. There are no scholarly discussion of theories in it, just an honest look at how we Americans relate to our past. Roy Rosenweig was a great writer and editor and David Thelen only once, in his conclusion, had me concerned about his choice of multi syllable words. The book is worth indulging him that one weakness. ( )
1 vote TLCrawford | Apr 13, 2012 |
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Some people make photo albums, collect antiques, or visit historic battlefields. Others keep diaries, plan annual family gatherings, or stitch together patchwork quilts in a tradition learned from grandparents. Each of us has ways of communing with the past, and our reasons for doing so are as varied as our memories. In a sweeping survey, Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen asked 1,500 Americans about their connection to the past and how it influences their daily lives and hopes for the future. The result is a surprisingly candid series of conversations and reflections on how the past infuses the present with meaning. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that people assemble their experiences into narratives that allow them to make sense of their personal histories, set priorities, project what might happen next, and try to shape the future. By using these narratives to mark change and create continuity, people chart the courses of their lives. A young woman from Ohio speaks of giving birth to her first child, which caused her to reflect upon her parents and the ways that their example would help her to become a good mother. An African American man from Georgia tells how he and his wife were drawn to each other by their shared experiences and lessons learned from growing up in the South in the 1950s. Others reveal how they personalize historical events, as in the case of a Massachusetts woman who traces much of her guarded attitude toward life to witnessing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television when she was a child. While the past is omnipresent to Americans, "history" as it is usually defined in textbooks leaves many people cold. Rosenzweig and Thelen found that history as taught in school does not inspire a strong connection to the past. And they reveal how race and ethnicity affects how Americans perceive the past: while most white Americans tend to think of it as something personal, African Americans and American Indians are more likely to think in terms of broadly shared experiences--like slavery, the Civil Rights Movement, and the violation of Indian treaties." Rosenzweig and Thelen's conclusions about the ways people use their personal, family, and national stories have profound implications for anyone involved in researching or presenting history, as well as for all those who struggle to engage with the past in a meaningful way.

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