Americans Love the Past, Not History

Last weekend I took my five-year old children to visit the Twin City Model Railroad Museum in St. Paul, MN. The museum itself has tiny trains endlessly circling an enormous layout of the Twin Cities, set in some vaguely defined (mid-20th century) past. On the walls and in a separate room there are posters, magazines, timetables, and other artifacts related to the history of railroads. But the kids most enjoy heading next door to a former foundry shop that now houses all sorts of toy train layouts.

While they were busy pushing buttons, I read up on the museum’s well-done displays about the history of model railroading. What struck me most was the argument that the hobby’s post-WWII golden age was driven by the intense emotions felt by new fathers who had gone through the gauntlet of wartime and hoped to recapture and pass down their childhood to their own children. The display concluded that “the hobby was no longer about toy trains—it was about identity, heritage, and legacy.”

I didn’t get a chance to talk to the hobbyists volunteering that day, but I know enough of them (including my father and his older brother) to know that for those children of the late Forties and Fifties, producing models of railroads from a bygone age is still more about identity, heritage, and legacy than toy trains.

My visit to that museum was yet another reminder of what’s become a guiding principle for a book proposal I’m about to send off:

Americans are fascinated by the past, even if they dislike history.

It’s an article of faith among most historians I know that the average American doesn’t adequately understand, value, or enjoy what we do for a living. And that may all be true, but I think historians’ feelings of pique sometimes cause us to forget that the discipline of history is just one way of engaging with the past and making meaning of it. (“The past” = “everything that happened before now.”) Practitioners of the social sciences and other academic disciplines do it all the time. But so too do non-academics.

Here’s how I try to frame it in an early draft of the proposed book’s introduction:

…only the most ahistorical Americans are actually disinterested in the past. The same politicians who would rather the government not pay for the National Endowment for the Humanities or a liberal arts education pepper their rhetoric with historical analogies and quotations from the Founding Fathers. The same students who decide to major in Marketing or Organizational Communication play video games set during World War II. Ken Burns’ documentaries put my wife to sleep, but she shares my love of British historical dramas as unlike each other as Downton Abbey and Peaky Blinders.

Americans restore cars from the Fifties and houses from the Twenties. They visit museums and lay flowers at gravesides. Their favorite social medium is organized according to a timeline. Good grief, Americans have made “antique” a verb, “reenactor” a noun, and “retro” an adjective!

These are not just idle distractions. What historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen found in 1998 still seems true today: “Americans… make the past part of their everyday routines and turn to it as a way of grappling with profound questions about how to live.”

Rosenzweig and Thelen, The Presence of the PastI’m quoting in the second paragraph from The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, which “takes up a subject that is at the heart of the historian’s inquiry (the past) but investigates it at a moment in time (the present) that historians generally leave to sociologists and anthropologists.” That 1998 book is based on Rosenzweig and Thelen interviewing nearly 1500 Americans about their practice of “popular historymaking.” (You can learn more about the survey at George Mason University’s Center for History and New Media, founded by — and now named after — the late Roy Rosenzweig.)

They found that large numbers of Americans engage in a wide variety of “past-related activities.” At least once every twelve months majorities of respondents

  • Looked at photographs with family and friends (91% — and that’s before social media) and took photos or videos to preserve memory (83% — before smartphones)
  • Watched movies or TV shows about the past (81%)
  • Attended a family or other group reunion (64%)
  • Visited history museums or history sites (57%)
  • Read books about the past (53%)

And significant minorities engaged in more time-consuming activities like hobbies/collecting related to the past (39%, including all those model railroaders!), family history and genealogy (36%), and keeping a journal or diary (29%). One in five even reported participating in some kind of group “devoted to studying, preserving, or presenting the past.”

What’s most striking is that such “popular historymaking” left Americans at the end of the 20th century feeling so deeply connected to the past — much more so (according to one item on the survey) than they felt when “studying history in school.”

Here’s a bit more of the passage I quoted:

The people who talked with us did not view the past as distant, abstract, or insignificant. Quite the contrary: through their understanding of the past, this cross section of Americans addressed questions about relationships, identity, immortality, and agency. They also used the past for the business of everyday life—maintaining family and community ties and trying to deal with family health problems. For the young mother from Kentucky, learning about ancestors who fought in the Civil War helped her understand “where I come from.” For the man from Memphis, the civil rights movement taught a basic moral lesson about racial equality. For the New Jersey psychologist and her husband, collecting old china perpetuated the memory of their family and themselves to pass down to future generations. For the Oklahoma student, hearing about the past from her mother and grandmother “makes me feel I have a lot of responsibility for what goes on in the world” and “helps me realize the things I need to do in the future.” (The Presence of the Past, p. 18)

Now, this study was conducted in the Nineties, so it’s fair to wonder what a similar investigation would reveal today. But I suspect that the story isn’t markedly different. After all, in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s original survey, the youngest respondents (those who would now be in their thirties, forties, and fifties) were about as likely as everyone else to engage in such “past-related activities” — slightly less so when it came to reading books or making family trees, but they were even more likely to produce and view media that preserved memory. (And again, all before Facebook, Instagram, and the iPhone.)

But here let me turn things over to my readers and invite comments in response to any or all of the following questions:

• Apart from reading a historian’s blog, which of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s “past-related activities” do you engage in with any regularity?

• When do you feel most connected to the past?

• Why is the past important to you?

This is highly unscientific, but it is a kind of research for the book project. Though I won’t quote you in the introduction without asking your permission first! 🙂

5 thoughts on “Americans Love the Past, Not History

  1. This brings to mind something I hadn’t considered before: we have several items displayed in our house with Swedish text on them, but neither of us speaks Swedish! Yet those items are meaningful to me as reminders of past generations of my family: those in a wooden ship seeking the abundant farm land of America and the English-speaking generations since who have found their place in their communities. This is all part of our family history and a little bit of the greater history of waves of Swedish immigrants following the same path.
    Maybe we’re all “living history” (as nouns, not verbs) contributing our part to the next generation’s story?

  2. People love history when it is presented to them in a way they can connect to it. I teach American History at a community college and students almost always say how they hated history in high school, yet they indicate that they like the idea of history itself. I use a flipped class teaching method which promotes student engagement with course content. My students loved the course because the boring part was removed. I kept hearing comments about how they didn’t know this or that because it wasn’t taught in high school.

    It was taught in high school. It just was not presented in a way they could connect with it. The flipped classroom approach is a great way to give students historical content in ways they can relate to. These kids have a new appreciation for the past as a result of adapting the learning to their learning abilities. I think that is one of the biggest issues in historical education today is that instructors do not change their teaching methods to connect with their students. The result is a failure to communicate the past successfully to the students.

  3. It’s all about the story! A GREAT story, the BEST story, with plot and characters and theme and symbolism and images and life and death and the whole world at stake! It’s about good and evil, Shakespearean tragedy v. Greek tragedy, and sheer unadulterated evil, the triumph of the human spirit, the terror of the unknown. I think we lose people when we shy away from the passion of history. History is not objective! It is full of life and life is never objective! It’s about finding where you stand, about the debate, about who we are as individuals who we are as a people and who we are as members of the human race. The whole point is to find your own personal truth BASED ON the evidence and the ever changing analyses of the experts about how we got to here. And we should emerge from the experience armed with tools that can help us imagine a better future.

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