How the Present Imagines the Past

As far as I’m concerned, the toughest task a history teacher faces is getting students to make responsible connections between past and present. I think this is essential to doing good history. Even for professional historians, it is a major challenge, since we also want to understand the past, as much as we can, on its own terms.

Because I study Revolutionary America and the early U.S., I am fascinated by how people today invoke that time period, and for what purposes. I have a Google alert set for the phrase “founding fathers,” and I can tell you, it provides me with a unique education on the (ab)uses of the past. I’ve tried to integrate popular, contemporary uses of American history into my classroom, as a way of fostering critical discussion of the ways we remember and even mythologize our past and the impact it has for us today.

Two assignments demonstrate how useful this can be. For my Colonial America to the Revolution course, I had my students examine the Colonial Williamsburg website, and discuss how the site presents the history of Williamsburg, the history of Virginia, and the Revolution. We discussed how the Williamsburg website reconciles the familiar stories of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and other famous figures that prompt so many visitors to come, with the stories of marginalized peoples like slaves and Native Americans. Why did Colonial Williamsburg choose to include a “photo” of Charlotte, a slave owned by Peyton Randolph, that included her body but not her face? I asked my students what CW meant to teach about slavery by doing this, and whether it was effective or not. We also discussed the way the Revolution was presented on the website’s promotional videos. I asked my students, do these videos do a good job presenting the diversity of people who contributed to the Revolution, and the contingencies that shaped it?

In my Americans and Their Presidents course, we examined presidential library websites, the White House website, and movies featuring real and fictional presidents in a similar fashion. At the heart of these analyses was the question, how do contemporary media depict the presidential office, its power, and its purpose? For those that discuss the presidency in a historical context (the movie Lincoln, for example, or the White House synopses of former presidents and their accomplishments while in office), I asked my students to think about the historical “argument” being advanced, because one is always present. How is the President being portrayed? As a regular American? A hero? A tyrant? Is any claim being made about presidential powers (like in Lincoln)? What about the President as a world leader (like Independence Day), or as action hero (Air Force One), or as political puppet (Wag the Dog)? All of these tell us something about the presidency in the present, of course. But the stories they tell are also all rooted in the complex history of the office, and thus can tell us something about the enduring relevance of that history to contemporary American political culture.

Both assignments in both classes provoked rich discussion. But they also reminded me how difficult it can be for students to use contemporary sources to understand the past. Beyond informational synopses of what they saw, students often had trouble making an analytical argument about how the media source imagined the presidential office, or how that image corresponded to the themes explored in the class. I got the sense that students are not accustomed to analyzing contemporary sources this way. I think this is all the more reason to do assignments like this, of course. But it only reinforces the challenges history teachers face when we try to prompt students to see the lasting impact of the past on the present.

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