Tags: history gaming, hi-fi, educational rap music, “is this anything?”
Bart: Oh boy! Free trading cards!
Milhouse: Wow! Joseph of Arimathea! Twenty six conversions in A.D. 46!
Nelson: Whoa, a Methuselah rookie card!
Ned Flanders: Well, boys, who’d have thought learning about history could be fun?
Bart: (horrrified) History??
Nelson: Let’s get out of here!!!
OK, so in the actual episode, Ned and Bart actually said “religion,” not “history.” I’m just playing with the text, which is partly what this post is about.
Is history fun? I recently read Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen’s 1998 book, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life, which reports on a decade-long survey about the ways thousands of ordinary Americans engage with history (or don’t) in their lives. Their major finding probably didn’t or won’t surprise anyone reading here, except perhaps in how starkly the data bore it out: while the majority of survey respondents cared deeply about the past, and engaged with it daily in a variety of informal ways, apathy or even hostility to formal history as taught in school was almost universal.
The Presence of the Past is full of interesting discoveries (I was struck by how much more successfully museums foster a sense of connection to the past than classrooms), but this post is about a bunch of activities Rosenzweig and Thelen mention without studying in detail:
Hundreds of thousands of Americans who do not earn their living as history professionals dedicate considerable time, money, and even love to historical pursuits. They volunteer at local historical organziations, lead tours of historic houses, don uniforms for battle reenactments, repair old locomotives for the railway history society, subscribe to American Heritage and American History Illustrated, maintain the archives for their trade union or church, assemble libraries from the History Book Club, construct family genealogies, restore old houses, devise and play World War II board games, collect early twentieth-century circus memorabilia, and lobby to preserve art deco movie houses. These amateur historians might be considered a third group, distinct from the history professionals who pursue the past for a living and the popular historymakers who made up the bulk of our study.
As that last sentence explains, amateur historians were not the primary subject of Rosenzweig and Thelen’s attention. They were more concerned with the ways that “everybody else” engaged with history. That’s fair, but I myself am becoming more and more interested in the amateur history world, and in a particular set of activities we might call “history at play.” I’ll have, I hope, more to say about this in future. I thought I’d begin by rounding up a cluster of examples and asking, a la David Letterman, “is this anything?”