Monday, August 2, 2010

Don't touch that dial!

Public historians sometimes see our our academic counterparts as tradition-bound and reluctant to engage the general public or to embrace new technologies. So it's worth taking note of a terrific radio program hosted by three academic historians: BackStory - With the American History Guys. The show bills itself as a "public radio program that brings historical perspective to the events happening around us today." Historians Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh "tear a topic from the headlines and plumb its historical depths." The shows are topical and typically include not only the hosts but guest historians with special expertise in the topic at hand, other guests with something to say about the topic, historic sound clips, and short interviews.

A recent episode, Independence Daze: A History of July Fourth, illustrates the approach. Guests include Pauline Maier, who draws on her book American Scripture to talk about the creation and changing meanings of the Declaration of Independence; a history of fireworks and the Fourth provided by James Heintze, author of The Fourth of July Encyclopedia; and David Blight narrating a reenactment of Frederick Douglass' famous address "The Meaning of the Fourth of July for the Negro." Other guests include public officials in charge of Fourth of July celebrations, fireworks vendors, and listeners calling in. Along the way the hosts discuss popular support for the American Revolution, the political uses of the holiday in the 19th century and in the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder,and how a secular holiday has acquired religious overtones in the 20th century. The program is a thorough and entertaining survey of the history of this iconic American holiday.

Other recent show topics include Scales of Justice: A History of Supreme Court Nomination, Climate Control: A History of Heating & Cooling, and Coming Home: A History of War Veterans.

As impressive as the show itself is the associated website. Each episode has a page that includes not only downloadable MP3 files but audio excerpts of show highlights, really extensive links to further readings, and a discussion board where listeners add their own perspectives on the topic. And of course you can subscribe to podcasts of the show via iTunes or through various RSS readers. The website is a wonderful resource for teachers--every episode could easily become a lesson plan with primary documents, short and accessible secondary readings, and audio.

Not every episode or every part of each episode works equally well. The jokey interchanges between the host sometimes feel forced, some guests are more scintillating than others, and speaking extemporaneously the hosts sometimes indulge in generalities or even get some minor point wrong. As an example of the latter, one of the hosts on the Fourth of July episode repeats the old myth that John Adams described Americans as divided over the revolution with a third in favor, a third against, and a third neutral. This is a myth that I frequently repeated myself until J. L. Bell set me right.

Quibbles aside, BackStory is a terrific public history project from three leading American historians, building on strong institutional support from the Virginia Institute for the Humanities, the University of Virginia; the National Endowment for the Humanities; the University of Richmond; the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation and others. Backstory is model of what academic historians can do when they go public!

~ Larry Cebula


  1. Just added the Frederick Douglass piece to my syllabus.
    ~Will Walker

  2. Posted on behalf of Peter Liebhold:

    Gee, I love the idea of doing good history on the radio. Public historians should push the traditional bounds and engage the public in alternative venues. Not everyone reads books with footnotes or visits museums.

    Of course that said it is difficult to do good history on the fly. A little research and thought is usually necessary for even the best historians. The question is are Ed Ayers, Peter Onuf, and Brian Balogh pushing the public to think in new ways? As Mrs. Kumar, my daughter's first grade teacher, used to say "she likes to push her students so smoke comes out of their ears."

    Is Back Story filled with nuance? Does it challenge listeners to think about history (and by transference current events) in new ways? Is the show like a well written Britannica article with thoughtful framing or more like Wikipedia filled with arcania? I quickly perused the website and wasn't blown away but I can imagine the show is more dynamic. Personally I think the people that really push the public history envelope on NPR are the Kitchen Sisters. Of course they probably don't consider themselves historians. I would love to read more about what kind of interpretations Back Story presents and how the public has reacted.

    On the small detail front I suspect that you are right about the problems with the Adams quote but the sentiment might be accurate. Scott Liell's 2003 book "46 Pages: Thomas Paine, Common Sense, and the Turning Point to Independence" makes a pretty strong argument for the citizens of the colonies in 1775 being cool on the notion of independence. I think he argues thirds with largely geographic difference (North for independence, mid Atlantic for staying the course, and the South sitting on the fence). He cites instructions to representatives of Continental Congress as well as letters to support his case. Liell goes on to argue the publication of "Common Sense" as a turning point. Hard to know if the book was really such a catalyst or as Eric Hoffer might argue the time had come. What do Ayers, Onuf, and Balogh say?

    ~ Peter Liebhold