Monday, February 11, 2008

Interpreting the USA Today Article about Wineburg's Work

Here's my contribution to the debate. Hat tip to Cliopatria.

One of the critical points here is that Wineburg and others were interviewed for the USA Today article whereas they are the authors of the article that will appear soon in the Journal of American History. One of Wiineburg’s main arguments is that history needs context and we only have surface context for the USA Today article as a preview and should view it as such.

Historical memory and reverence for historical and current figures is an interesting phenomenon to study and leads to much debate, sometimes heated. Wineburg’s historical analogy traveling across time was simply an attempt to cross some cultural patterns and to go beyond the surface reading of “the leaders” will always identify with “the leaders” in another time with his Franklin analogy. Harry Truman wouldn’t identify with either one given that he went home to live with his mother-in-law when he had to leave the White House. But there are personality traits and features to more closely examine to also better understand why people view history in the various ways that they do.

More importantly, this is a good tool to examine how people understand history and themselves. This is quite different from the “greatest presidents” polls conducted among scholars for decades now. History belongs to the people, not just those who research it but also those who read it and think about it in quite diverse ways. We can all learn something here.

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