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License to Imagine

The tree of history is nourished by dreams and stories as well as by facts.

By Timothy Burke, professor of history

20a_betsy.jpgLast year, the Philadelphia City Council passed a bill requiring the licensing of tour guides in the historic area of the city. The legislation created a requirement for guides to be periodically tested on their historical knowledge. Some of the debate around the legislation was predictably concerned with the size and prerogatives of government and the cost of additional bureaucracy. I found myself more concerned with the proposition that what we want from tour guides is a testable adherence to concrete historical facts. Perhaps perversely for a professional historian, I think that a few tall tales and imaginative shadings from the guides at Philadelphia’s historic sites are not only inevitable but a potentially positive part of the ongoing creative renewal of historical knowledge.

To start with, I’m skeptical about what this test ought to test for. Think of a fact about Philadelphia in the colonial era. That Benjamin Franklin lived in a house now marked by a sculpture at Franklin Court? Certainly. That George Washington kept slaves at his presidential home when Philadelphia was the capital of the United States? Absolutely. That colonial Philadelphia was a part of a larger Atlantic political economy that was crucially shaped by slavery throughout the Americas? Very much a fact. That the lives of ordinary residents of late colonial Philadelphia was considerably different from the lives of Franklin and other members of the city’s elite? Certainly as well.

I’m not suggesting that your average tour guide, clip-clopping around Independence Hall in a horse-drawn buggy, should offer a lecture on mid–18th-century social history.

It’s just that if we want guides or other people to know “facts,” that, in and of itself, doesn’t tell us much about which facts matter or which facts are appropriate to what context. There are a lot of facts, after all.

Periodically, civic and political groups issue the results of surveys that suggest the American public is ignorant about history. It’s often implied that this is an accelerating trend, but this is very difficult to say, both because such tests haven’t been standardized across a long time span and because those results that have been reported don’t really typically demonstrate progressively greater ignorance in recent years. At the least, if a lack of knowledge about dates, facts, and events is a continuous condition in modern American life, it begs a question about whether there are any meaningful consequences to such ignorance. Perhaps Henry Ford was right, and in a country known for reinvention, history is bunk. More pointedly, perhaps the 19th-century French intellectual Ernst Renan was right when he observed that nations need history but that they generally need to get it wrong, so as to forget aspects of the past that would call into question the unity or coherence of the nation-state.

However, I think there’s plenty of evidence that Americans do care about history, often passionately so, and that when historical concerns rise to the surface, they often demonstrate a deep and complex understanding of the American past that rests both on the formal knowledge of historians and on the memories of communities, families, and individuals. This can very much include the signature events and names of American history, as the commercial success of Ken Burns’ series The Civil War or a number of recently published biographies of the Founding Fathers suggests.

Public history, as in museum exhibits, monuments, and memorials, can be a particularly intense focal point for this kind of engagement. We care a lot about how the Smithsonian exhibits the history of the atomic bomb or about how to mark the Vietnam War in Washington. We care about how—or whether—to make a gigantic statue of the Native American leader Crazy Horse and about which buildings and places deserve preservation because of their links to the past. And when people care, they care about getting it right in a more expansive and vital way than a simple inventory of the facts.

It’s often true that such public representations of the past contain factual inaccuracies or that they mythologize and misremember aspects of history. But not all inaccuracies are created equal. Historian Richard Slotkin argues in his 2002 essay “Fiction for the Purposes of History” that part of the professional training of historians should be writing historical fiction because such work opens up other kinds of truth through other voices and modes of representation. When we build memorials, visit historical sites, visit museums, stage reenactments, or travel somewhere to see and experience the past, we’re trying to do something similar to what the best historical fiction does—to bring history inside our hearts and lives, to think in a new way about its meanings.

I once had a conversation with another historian who pointed out that Cape Coast Castle in Ghana was relatively unimportant in the history of the Atlantic slave trade—that far greater numbers of slaves were transported from other sites in West and Equatorial Africa. He conceded that at many of these other sites, there is little physical evidence today of that history and that other sites would be relatively inaccessible to contemporary travelers. Thus, Cape Coast Castle has become an important stop for African American tourists on trips to West Africa, a solemn opportunity to think about the history of enslavement. Slaves were held in Cape Coast Castle: it was a part of that world. The feel and look of that building today is an important portal into that history, a chance to make visible a history that is otherwise so deeply embedded in the modern world. A narrow vision of historical fact shouldn’t bar the way to that opportunity.

Slotkin argues that historical fiction lets us access the power of history that resides in its mythic or poetic resonances with the present. It lets us create new myths or challenge old ones. When we set out to understand what we are and what we might yet be, we draw on the stories, characters, and lessons that the past provides. When we decide what we honor or despise, fear or treasure, we often turn to history. I once went hiking with family along a hilly back road near Death Valley in California. We came upon a short, abandoned mineshaft that was somewhere between 60 and 100 years old, apparently dug with hand tools by no more than a few individuals. That mineshaft, hundreds of miles from any settlement or community, is likely the only trace of the men and labor and dreams spent in that lonely, desolate place. If I wanted to say anything vividly individual about that history—as opposed to something systematic and abstract—I would need an imagination that goes beyond the kind of facts that could compose a concrete test for tour guides.

However we call upon history, it still requires careful study, is still constrained by the factual substance of the past. History isn’t just any damn thing we please. Some of what we imagine through history is wrong because it so grossly or wildly misrepresents the truth of the past. Expert knowledge about the past is still important; it provides substance that everyone can use to flesh out memory and imagination. There are things we don’t know about the past and things we can’t know, and everyone should recognize those boundaries.

Of course, a perfectly truthful representation of some aspects of human history can also be used in service to a repellant vision. For example, a racist could be rigorously factual in a description of past massacres of Native Americans and then argue that because this “solved” the problem of Native Americans, this is exactly what the government should continue to do now with nonwhites. What’s wrong here is not the command of facts, it’s the ethics of it. Some of the dreams and myths we make with history are inherently bad not because they misrepresent the past, but because they are morally odious.

If a guide to historic Philadelphia adamantly denied that there were any slaves in Washington’s house or claimed that Franklin was having a love affair with Queen Ranavalona III of Madagascar (born after Franklin’s death), that guide would be malicious in the first case and silly in the second. But a guide who offers more plausible if slightly embellished tales of Franklin’s romantic escapades or other mythic shadings of the lives and times of 18th-century Philadelphians isn’t doing anything that we should call to heel. The tree of history is nourished by dreams and stories as well as by facts.

3 Responses to “License to Imagine”

  1. In my work as head of Friends Historical Library, I'm often asked to comment on "facts" relating to Quakers that appear in the media, or on exhibit labels or on talks given by tour guides. The Philadelphia Inquirer is running a series on local histories and a couple of months ago wrote a piece on the Philadelphia patriot and ex-Quaker Christopher Marshall and how he was disowned by the Quakers for siding with the Revolutionaries. Made a nice story. I checked the records. He was disowned not in the 1770s for being too militant, but in the 1750s for being involved with counterfeiters.

  2. Add me to the list of grammarians who winced at Timothy Burke's home page lead in to the story requiring tour guide testing.
    "…requires guides TO NOT ONLY …"
    Egad man, you're a professor!
    Correction: NOT ONLY TO…

  3. Professor Burke’s recent posting License to Imagine caught our attention. Written by a professional historian, we thought the title was mildly controversial. We admit we have not read the bill passed by the Philadelphia City Council concerning the licensing of city tour guides in the historic district. As Professor Burke notes, 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 Professor Burke that a relevant question should be “what is the City Council testing for?” Viewed from a different angle, how are tour guides trained, who conducts their training, and whose history is being taught? This would suggest the testing of tour guides is a secondary concern, if a valid concern at all. “Facts” are boring, and can easily misrepresent essential aspects of our historical past. But is the City Council requiring a test of “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. After all, a tour of Philadelphia’s most venerated historical sites is not a pep rally for the promotion of national identity and unity. The need for cultural affirmation through our history is past. Even with popular history, there should be little room for nostalgia or myth.

    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, 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 its time, then, for the myriad of “academic” historians that 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 respectfully request Professor Burke and his colleagues 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. We agree with Professor Burke that “embellished tales” by the tour guides may not be cause for an inquisition, but the so-called “tree of history” must be rooted in reasonably conforming historiography. If Professor Burke wants us to think in new ways about historical meaning, then a heterogeneous experience from “imaginative” tour guides may not be the best start.