In their book, The Presence of the Past, public historians Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen seek to answer a question that had been plaguing the historical profession for the past few decades: how connected to history is the general American public?
Particularly in the 1980s, a number of books and articles were published on the seeming decline of the state of American education, most prominently by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn. Through a 1986 test of almost 8,000 17-year olds that was funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, Ravitch and Finn sought to gauge the general level of knowledge of America’s students. They found the results dismal, with an average test score of 54.5 and low association between figures and their contexts, such as associating Abraham Lincoln with the Civil War. This is attributed to curricular focus on concepts and theory over content and chronology.
A warning of historical amnesia descended upon the nation in the late 1980s, leading to a conference for history professionals to determine ways to better connect academic historians with the public at large. These professionals sought to determine what Americans do know, as opposed to what they do not, and to approach these results with enthusiasm instead of worry. What resulted was a national survey that was designed to take a broad look at history, even referring specifically to ‘the past’ in order to be more inclusive, as well as to avoid the negative connotations brought on by high school history teachers. By analyzing the results of questions regarding how respondents related to, used, and accessed the past, this book intends to prepare historians, especially public historians, to better serve the needs and interests of the American public.
Survey Results and History-Related Activities
After crafting a survey and interviewing over 1,500 people, including specific samples from African American, Mexican American, and Ogala Sioux communities, the authors found an overwhelming presence of the past in respondents’ lives: less than 1% interviewed had done no history-related activities in the past year. The most popular history-related activities revolved around the family, such as looking at photographs and genealogy. Rosenzweig and Thelen sum up their statistical findings with the following description: “Almost every American deeply engages the past, and the past that engages them most deeply is that of their family.” For respondents, engaging primarily with family history helps them understand their place in the world at large, form an identity based on their ancestors’ actions and values, and ensure their immortality by passing on family stories to their children. Respondents use their family history to frame the past and the present, and to make decisions regarding the future. Additionally, many people who confess a dislike of history do so because they feel disconnected from it; by focusing on family history, they can more easily see themselves in the past and engage with the past in a way that is personal and meaningful.
Relationship with History
Rosenzweig and Thelen use multiple lens for analyzing their results, including gender, race, age, level of education, and income. They determine that “participation in historical activities is not for the most part tied to particular social groups or backgrounds,” with the exception of minute differences that point to various sociological factors.
Instead, categorical differences arise when looking at various groups’ relationship with and understanding of the past. One example given is gender: historically, the academic study of history has been available only to men, whereas women have been tasked with the maintenance of their community. Looking at the participation in history-related activities, women attend family reunions significantly more than men, while men visit museums and historic sites significantly more than women.
Analyzing the survey results through ethnic identity reveal the most significant differences in relationship with the past. White Americans access national history through their own family histories, both discussing events through their own personal connections and identifying personal, rather than political, lessons learned from those events. African American and Sioux respondents, however, spoke more widely about their whole ethnic group, which was especially evident through their use of ‘we’ to mean more than just their immediate, more recent family. For example, African American respondents saw their immediate family as a microcosm of black history. For these groups, the past has a much more palpable effect on the present, where the effects of historical topics such as slavery and the fraught relationship between Native Americans and the U.S. government are ever-present. Engaging with the past is not so much a hobby as it is a struggle for survival and understanding.
When asked to rate certain historical authorities on their trustworthiness, museums received the highest rating. Respondents described museums as bringing a sense of immediacy and engagement through its use of artifacts. Other authorities, such as nonfiction books and films, were judged more favorably the more that primary sources were used. Books and films, however, received lower ratings from African American and Sioux respondents, who saw these sources as presenting misinformation or biases.
The second- and third-highest rated sources were eyewitnesses and family. Respondents appreciated the personal insight and wisdom that eyewitnesses could give, and the ability to discern how sincere the eyewitness’s account actually is. Ratings for eyewitnesses were even higher for Sioux respondents, who trusted eyewitnesses to know about the reservation’s history in a respectful way.
One of the lowest-rated sources was history teachers, more specifically in the structure and design of history curricula. While some respondents praised teachers that were engaging or strove to include more diversity into their lessons, most respondents spoke of teachers and the classes they taught as being boring, irrelevant, and alienating. African American and Sioux respondents had even harsher critiques of history teachers, citing erasure and distortion respectively in classes. These overwhelmingly negative responses to history teachers offer one answer to the crisis in history education shown in Ravitch and Finn’s test; with such bad experiences in history class, students were finding it harder to engage in history and understand its importance.
While Rosenzweig and Thelen accomplish a huge feat in revealing Americans’ relationship to the past, they did not necessarily succeed in proving that Americans are knowledgeable about history. In fact, many quotations taken from respondents’ open-ended answers betrayed an ignorance, especially from white Americans, of the larger context of certain prominent events, which were often evoked through respondents’ personal involvement or relationship with the event. Additionally, the answers gathered from respondents may have been skewed by the close-ended, quantifiable nature of the survey questions.
That said, this book is still a landmark achievement that reveals Americans’ diverse and pervasive connections with the past. Each author ends with suggestions for improving the field in the future, such as through shared historical authority and more participatory historical culture, that can offer much inspiration to public historians and other history professionals.
- Archibald, Robert R. “Review: The Presence of the Past,” The American Historical Review 105.2 (2000)
- Brumberg, David G. “Review,” New York History 69.2 (1988).
- Rosenzweig, Roy and David Thelen. The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York: Columbia University Press, 1998).
- Schuman, Howard. “The Presence of the Past (Book Reviews).” Public Opinion Quarterly 64.1 (2000).
- Zilversmit, Arthur. “Another Report Card, Another “F”,” Reviews in American History 16.2 (1988).