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Whose History?

We admit that we have not read the bill passed by the Philadelphia City Council concerning the licensing of tour guides in the city’s historic district. As Professor Timothy Burke notes in “License to Imagine” (April Bulletin), the “legislation created a requirement for guides to be periodically tested on their historical knowledge.” He further voices his concern over the testing of tour guides on historical “facts,” and posits a view that “tall tales” and “imaginative shadings” from tour guides are part of the territory and may even be acceptable.

We agree with Burke that a relevant question should be: “What is the City Council testing for?” —“facts” or “knowledge?” As much as “facts” are uninteresting to historically aware Americans (not to mention foreign visitors), tourists aren’t about to settle for “tall tales” or someone’s “imaginative shadings” either. If Americans are passionate about their history, then let’s get it right.

Professor Burke’s argument confuses us. If he seeks to “get it right,” then perhaps the tall tales and imaginative shadings should be curtailed. After all, wasn’t this the intent of last year’s legislation? More to the point, however, is who is teaching—and what history is being taught to—the tour guides? And is the recently enacted test requirement being integrated with the historical training the tour guides receive in the first place? “Professional” historical scholarship has been less than sanguine in its pursuit of “second class” historical ventures that include a lay audience. Perhaps it’s time, then, for the myriad “academic” historians who populate the history departments of the numerous colleges and universities in the greater Philadelphia area to donate their scholarship to the training program for the tour guides.

We encourage Professor Burke and his colleagues to contribute to those programs that train Philadelphia’s tour guides—not with iconoclastic ideas, useless facts, or nation-building propaganda, but with a “pragmatic” epistemology, where knowledge-based interpretation of historical evidence (not unfounded tales or imagination) is permissible and useful.

Sarah and Nick Timreck
Reston, Va.

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