Update: I just wanted to take a second to encourage all of you to read Pete Carmichael’s presentation in its entirety. The last thing I want is for you to read this post as some kind of hatchet job. His thoughts regarding battlefield interpretation deserve a careful read and perhaps in the next few days I will have the opportunity to explore it further.
I almost want to apologize for this post because apart from the recent Civil War Times editorial by Gary Gallagher I haven’t thought much at all about this subject. Unfortunately, I missed a really good public history panel at the OAH that included Peter Carmichael and Ashley Whitehead, both of who discussed what they see as the future of battlefield interpretation. [Thanks to John Rudy for posting a transcript of their talks.] I encourage you to read both of their talks because I am only going to poke at an ancillary point made by Pete at the beginning of his presentation.
So we’ve got to move ahead. One thing that strikes me is that we have a hard time doing as historians, public historians or academic historians, that we need to recognize that the interpretive battle has been won. Certainly there are pockets of the lost cause out there, and we certainly need to contend and address those issues, but we often bring undue attention to those pockets of resistance. And the blogging is largely responsible for that, in exciting and talking about the issue of the Confederate slave. Man, that’s not an issue among professional historians, that’s not an issue with most of the public, but it is an issue with really, I think, a small minority.
On the one hand I agree with much of this. Teachers and public historians are no longer up against a widely-held framework that attempts to justify the Confederacy. At best, they are echoes of the lost cause. I also agree that the veracity of the black Confederate narrative found on hundreds of websites is not in any way a concern of academic historians and at best on the radar screens of a “small minority” of the general public.
Regarding the role of blogging in publicizing this issue, I am assuming that Pete has me in mind, which is fine. My response to Pete is pretty much my response to Gallagher, but let me tailor it a bit to the above reference.
For me the essential issue here is not the content of the myth, but what it tells us about how history is now being disseminated. Most importantly, the growing popularity of the black Confederate narrative on the web suggests that any traditional notion of authority entertained by academics or understanding of what it means to be a gatekeeper is obsolete: “Every man his own historian.” It seems to me that professional historians across the board ought to be more sensitive to how the Internet has shaped the public dissemination of history as well as how their students as well as the general public are learning about the past. More importantly, public historians and museum educators ought to be sensitive not only to the information and assumptions that visitors bring with them, but on how they plan to respond when it conflicts with solid scholarship. In short, they must respond not simply to the misinformation, but with a method of how the information is acquired.
In the end, the issue for me is not so much about countering the myth itself, but understanding how ordinary people acquire information. History educators need to be teaching how to go about conducting targeted online searches as well as how to evaluate websites. It’s an opportunity to share with the general public how historians evaluate sources and construct interpretations.
Let’s stop blaming bloggers and let’s keep our focus on the issues that truly matter and which unite all of us as educators.