Little Lord Historian

In his Public History book, Thomas Cauvin points out that, “the relations between the past and the present are at the center of public history” (239). This may seem somewhat obvious to anyone who has spent the last several weeks writing a blog focused on public history, but it is an important observation. Whether it is the concept of shared authority, history as activism, or the everyday American’s intersection with the past through personal histories, the past can influence the present and the present can influence how the past is viewed.

For many people, for many reasons, sharing can be difficult. So too, then, the concept of shared authority is a struggle for the professional historian. The idea of shared authority suggests that historians are not the only ones with a legitimate interpretation of the past. Understandably, this is a hard pill to swallow for many. As Cauvin says, “most of the time, history training does not lend itself to shared authority” (216). In addition, if someone spends a significant amount of time studying something, or writing a blog or something like that, then they often feel as if they have earned the authority.

So why must they share their hard-earned authority with know-nothings? Well, the truth is, the know-nothings are not actually such. In fact, most people are engaging with the past on a regular basis, just in a different way than history professionals. As Roy Rosenzweig notes in The Presence of the Past, “our survey respondents often used the past in complex and subtle ways, but their approach was sometimes in tension with my historical training and preferences” (186). So, then, the goal is to give a balance in the range of interpretations of history. Because a free-for-all, everyone-make-your-own-history fun park is just as shutter inducing as a stingy little lord historian raining down correct histories from their castle on the hill.

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