Wednesday, June 13, 2012

History Through Humanities

At The Journey Through Hallowed Ground

Let's face it:  few people become interested in history by academic books or journals.  Perhaps sad, but undeniably true.  Rather, many more receive their first brush with history via film, or art, or literature.  This was the theme of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground's (JTHG) 6th annual conference in Frederick, Maryland.  How can historians (both public and academic) combine forces with public administrators, tourism officials, and government to utilize arts and humanities in manners both creative and accurate?  I was pleased by many of the presentations and initiatives that are ongoing through the historic corridor that stretches from Gettysburg to Monticello.  Through multimedia, tourism tech, and youth outreach, the JTHG is one of many non-profit organizations spearheading the charge in promoting unique cultural tourism endeavors.

One such initiative is an education film series entitled Of the Student, By the Student, For the Student.  Pupils attending school within the JTHG corridor collaborate with the National Park Service and professional filmmakers to produce mini-movies or vodcasts.  Each presentation delves into local (yet nationally significant) history such as the Battle of Antietam, the C&O Canal, or John Brown's 1859 raid on Harpers Ferry.  The students are provided the stepping stone to become the professional documentarians of tomorrow through such a project.  Many of these films premiered during the conference and were followed by a question/answer session with the students.  Unique interpretations were devised by the young filmmakers.  For instance, the tale of an accused and wrongfully murdered Confederate sympathizer was converted into an allegory regarding bullying in modern school systems.  What better way to make the past relevant?

Other sessions included details on how to create cultural travel packages and grant writing for the humanities.  My own presentation delivered delved into the Civil War in cinema.  By examining this form of arts and humanities, we can observe how historical representations of the past reflect our own times as much as they do the time periods in question.  Historical films (even bad or inaccurate ones) can still teach us about the social and political themes of the eras in which they were produced.  For example, the 1965 film Shenandoah serves as a chilling precursor to the anti-war sentiments that rock the nation only two or three years down the road.  The motion picture was also more in tune with the then-ongoing Civil Rights movement than previous Civil War movies.  In studying the past through humanities, we see not only history but ourselves.

These sentiments could not have been made clearer by the conference's keynote speaker Robert G. Stanton, former head of the National Park Service and current adviser to the Secretary of the Interior (seen below).  By embracing the technological and cultural diversities now available in the humanities field, we can inform better and delve deeper into the complexities, controversies, and celebrations of the shared past.  Linking history with present is simple when one is willing to be open-minded and utilize the vast array of resources available to students and historians.  Stanton urged his largely student audience to accept that challenge by making the national story accessible and relevant.  By and large, they succeeded--and the JTHG is just getting warmed up.

I applaud the efforts of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground and was pleased that I had the opportunity to participate and present in a small portion of their conference.


  1. This was an interesting read and an encouraging one. As an aspiring social studies teacher, I am beginning to come to grips with the challenge of presenting content to students that traditionally see history as boring or irrelevant. One course that I took at Gettysburg College, Teaching Social Studies, spent a significant amount of time addressing fundamental questions such as "What IS social studies?" and "Which, if any, discipline within the subject is the most important?" Fledgling teachers are learning that historical fact can be viewed through any number of lenses, be it economics, sociology, anthropology, and many others. The key thing to understand is that all disciplines offer a unique insight that leads to a deeper knowledge of our past.
    Furthermore, history in the classrooms and textbooks need to cease being presented as inevitable and foregone conclusions. The fundamental mistake is that that view comes from a person in the future, not from a person in the context of the events. That perspective robs future students of the ability to quickly and effectively understand the relevance of the material. For a notable example, D-Day was not a guaranteed success when the decision was made to execute the invasion. From how it is taught in schools however, one does not get that impression. How unfortunate it is that the drama and heroism of that event is lost in the telling simply because we, the future generation, know the outcome!
    Again, it is good to see that the methods of teaching and interacting with history are receiving refinements and improvements. I hope that there are more programs out there and more courses like the one I took on my way to becoming a teacher.

  2. I well-written synopsis on the evolution of sharing history. Thanks.