David Thelen: A Participatory Historical Culture

This book furnishes evidence that academic history differs from everyday history. Readers of an earlier draft called this finding both "exciting" because our respondents described rich alternatives to current professional practice and "troubling" because those alternatives sometimes violated academic norms. We are not the first professionals to discover this gulf. In his "Everyone a Historian," Roy points to pioneering initiatives by other professionals that seek to adapt professional practice to popular uses of the past.

Over the past year, as I have discussed our survey with others, I have been increasingly struck by a second finding: Using the past is as natural a part of life as eating or breathing. It is a common human activity. What we have in common as human beings is that we employ the past to make sense of the present and to influence the future. From this perspective it matters little whether "the past" consists of a 200-year-old narrative, an account from a textbook, a display at a museum, or a tale recounted by a family member over Thanksgiving dinner.

In this essay, I will use our survey responses to illustrate some of the features of this common process, and point out some places where professional historymaking diverges from it. And I will try to sketch a participatory historical culture that surrounds us--a culture in which using the past could be treated as a shared human experience and opportunity for understanding, rather than a ground for division and suspicion.

The "history wars" of recent years have subverted the development of a healthy, participatory, fundamentally historical culture because they have politicized history as a struggle among claims to authority. In the debate over the National Air and Space Museum's proposed exhibit on the Enola Gay, for example, people were asked to choose between the authenticity of a pilot's memories of wartime service and the accuracy of written sources recovered by a historian. In a fundamentally historical culture, both would be respected and treated for what they are: different uses of the past introducing different perspectives and different individual voices.1

Commenting on an earlier draft of this manuscript, Michael Frisch wrote: "This book virtually opens up a whole new front in the culture wars by deepening our appreciation of history's capacity to bring us together in dialogue and respect, grounded in dimensions of family, community, national, and human experience that are . . . understood and engaged in fundamentally historical ways by most people most of the time." This, Frisch continued, provides "ground for a deeper engagement with what history can mean as a resource for our common life and how it can be developed and engaged as such."

What are these "fundamentally historical ways" in which we are alike? How can we learn to see them instead of just our highly visible differences? How can we use our similarities and differences in pursuit of a better common life?

In historymaking practice, terms and even whole languages often get in the way of recognizing our more fundamental similarities. The very word "history" was associated by many respondents with their most unpleasant experiences with the past. Indeed, "forced regurgitation" or "spitting back" of "meaningless" and "boring" facts and dates on exams in school were their most common associations with the word. To call something "history" is to describe it as dead and irrelevant, completely useless. For professionals, however, "history" is both alive and useful. The term is practically synonymous with our occupational identity, and we associate it with rigorous discipline and the authoritative use of the past. The word that seemed to have more meaning to our survey respondents--"experience"--is dismissed by many professionals as random, private, shallow, and even self-deceptive.

From our interviews, I have concluded that the greatest danger from professionalization--a danger that is great because it is often invisible--is that its self-enclosing thrust has made it harder for us professionals to recognize which of our practices resemble "common," "local," or "everyday" knowledge and perspective and which have evolved into jargon that makes sense only to other professionals. If we wish to construct serious dialogues about the past with nonprofessionals--who are, after all, our fellow citizens and human beings--we may need to go back and revalue our first languages, the ones we were taught to leave behind when we entered the professional world. By recognizing patterns in our historymaking practices that we share with others, we can more effectively contribute to the larger historical culture we all inhabit.

I believe our findings support the conclusion that the foundations for a more participatory historical culture already exist. In section I, I report public rationales that people gave us for connecting experience with history when we asked them what about the past adults had the responsibility to pass on to children, probably the most central issue for any culture. In section II, I sketch outlines of existing patterns in which our culture already seems to connect history and experience. And finally, in section III, I try to imagine a participatory historical culture in which, by using the past on their own terms, people can reshape the civic forum to better hear their voices and meet their needs.


I want to begin to recognize existing foundations for a more participatory historical culture by reporting themes our respondents themselves identified when we asked them what about the past should be passed on to their children. The 60 respondents who received this question in the national sample emphasized several recurring themes as they answered this open-ended question.

By far the most common rationale for passing things on to their children--mentioned by 33 of the 60 respondents--was to help them understand "why things are the way they are today," in the words of one of the people who talked with us. "Without history we wouldn't know who we are. . . . Knowing the past gives continuity and meaning to life," observed a 67-year-old salesman from Fort Worth who turned to history to understand his family, ethnic group, occupation, state, and nation. "The past gives a good indication of how people are going to act tomorrow," reported an art installer from Long Island. "To understand the past is to understand the present, and to know why you are what you are, and hopefully project that into the future and possibly know how things could be in the future." By assigning a historical culture the responsibility of illuminating the present, respondents argued that everything that mattered--personal identity, religious values, civic practices--could be better engaged in everyday life when individuals understood where they came from and why they had developed as they had. In order to approach the past on their own terms--not as a classroom progression from election to election, war to war--respondents grounded historical inquiry in present circumstances, perceptions, and needs.

Since an awareness of how people had passed through experiences in the past helped respondents to understand them in the present, one sixth of those answering this question volunteered that it was as important to understand strangers' pasts as it was to understand their own. A Jamaican-born Illinois woman told us that on her arrival in New York it was "fascinating to me" to learn about how people from "all types of groups and backgrounds came here . . . how they survived in their country and how we survived over here." As she talked about experiences with her new neighbors, she learned "actually it was not much different" for her and other Jamaicans than it had been for immigrants from other backgrounds. Interested in understanding "people [who] come from different areas and have different beliefs," a Charlottesville, Virginia student in his twenties maintained that it was "important to know why they came here, what they left behind, and how their culture affects how they act and live here today." Understanding the past was a first step toward respecting, engaging, and even embracing unfamiliar people, practices, and faiths. A Scottsdale, Arizona stockbroker in his forties said, "I was raised Catholic and my child should be raised Catholic"; but he wanted his daughter to "know of other religions so when she gets older she could compare them and choose which one she wants to follow."

The most common narratives or themes about the past that respondents hoped to pass on to their children--mentioned by one quarter of respondents--centered on the struggles of individuals to make a better world for themselves and those who came after them. By presenting history as a story of struggle, by insisting that blessings from political freedom to personal wealth were the fruits of dedication and hard work by real individuals, respondents described not only a content of history but also a responsibility they wanted users to feel when they engaged history. They wanted younger people to feel responsible for determining the course of events instead of merely accepting their fates as automatic rights or unearned gifts. A New Jersey collection analyst in her fifties wanted children to know "how hard the struggle was for grandparents when they came to this country, how difficult it was in the neighborhoods they lived in, the ethnic separations of the people in the communities, the language barriers and the lack of education" because she believed that "the children of today think that everything was just given to them, that our parents were just given everything they had, that they didn't have to work for it." If they could see that the past was a story of dedication and struggle, she hoped children would learn that "education, sharing and sacrifice within the family are necessary" for future survival.

A 42-year-old Maryland floral designer wanted children to draw the same conclusion about why they had political freedom: "They should know how people have struggled for freedom for this country. . . . We don't want them to think that life is always easy . . . they have to work for what they want . . . everything isn't handed to them." The material ease and cultural tolerance they enjoyed would last only if they assumed responsibility for sustaining them. Respondents wanted children to grow up like those before them to become active citizens, take responsibility for maintaining freedom and democracy and, if called on, to make "the supreme sacrifice" (in the words of a retired man from Louisiana) so that heritage could live.

The real issue for respondents in teaching about sacrifices and struggles at the core of civic heritage was the same as for family heritage: Did people feel these were personal inheritances they were compelled to defend and assert? Or were they merely distant conventions to be memorized for an exam or harmless stories with which to indulge Grandma at a holiday dinner? Participation was the center of historical culture.

A quarter of respondents who answered this question worried that people needed to be able to transmit experience, values, and heritages across generations at a time when popular culture and classroom curricula segmented tastes and values by generations. "My children should know what we have gone through to where they appreciate all they all have," said a retired woman from Chesterfield, Missouri. Focusing on separation of generations, many respondents said the problem of transmission of perspectives and experiences was central for a culture that would make history a resource for shaping the future. The cultural stakes were clear, observed a Montclair, New Jersey teacher in his thirties, because "kids today will be leaders later and will hopefully be able to then save civilization."

A quarter of those answering the question talked about their responsibilities to identify mistakes and prevent similar events from recurring. From learning how individuals fell into self-destructive behavior to learning how regimes permitted disagreements to end in wars, many respondents believed that history should teach how tragedies might have been avoided and might be prevented in the future. "Our generation should realize the mistakes that have been made in the past and try not to do those again," said a retired woman from Pleasant Hill, Missouri in her sixties. A 43-year-old medical supervisor from Las Vegas wanted her son to study the Holocaust "so as to make sure nothing like that ever happens again."

Respondents envisioned a participatory culture in which their children could sort out how and why individuals in the past had tried to make a difference in their worlds, how and why they had made things better and worse. From these explorations people would learn not only how they could make things better and worse in the future but also how to be active users and interpreters of the past. Both popular culture and formal history classes mediated between them and actual experiences from the past, frequently conveying distortions, lies, and inaccuracies. Respondents said they wanted a culture in which individuals took responsibility and acquired skills to interpret history for themselves.


What common perspectives on the past frame a profoundly historical culture that already exists beneath what may appear to be differences between professional and amateur historymakers, themes that make the past our common resource? To begin with, it may be helpful to distinguish uses of the past from contents. The "intimate past" (content) is not the same as intimate uses of the past. At Christmas gatherings families talk about national things as well as family things. The national narratives that made up the content of exams that respondents had hated as students were less the source of their alienation than the exam format--the fact that they had been forced to spit back meaningless material. What mattered was not that the subject was intimate or national but that outside of class the students were active participants and in school they (and often their teachers, they complained) were required to absorb abstractions and facts that made no sense. What mattered was whether they could actively participate in using the past.

I'm much more certain that respondents participate actively and use the past intimately than I am that the pasts they use are intimate or private. The central issue in a fundamentally historical culture is participation or passivity, active and firsthand engagement or mediation by others who had mysterious or untrustworthy agendas.

To find the common ground among respondents, then, we should look for occasions when they participated voluntarily and enthusiastically, situations where they felt invited to use the past on their own terms. History museums present an obvious example. Respondents trusted them as much as they did their grandmothers. They felt as connected to the past in museums and historic sites as they did at family gatherings. And the keys were that they could go when and with whom they wanted, and interpret artifacts how they wanted. More than half the respondents in the national sample had visited a museum or historic site during the previous year. Museum artifacts and historic sites invited them to revisit experiences at other times and places, to imagine how they might have felt and acted, to reflect on how the earlier experiences or circumstances might have changed or been changed by those who had originally participated in them.

Hobbyists and collectors--two fifths of our respondents--are another obvious group of historymakers who practice history for the love of it. Some hobbyists tried to imagine their way into the Civil War by sleeping on rope hammocks or firing Civil War muskets or reenacting battles. Others tried to understand why postage stamps at a particular time commemorated presidents or pop singers, were printed in different inks or perforated in different ways; they asked and answered questions that require remarkable attention to details of documentation. Hobbyists, like museum visitors, chose the arenas and terms of their participation with the past.

I came away from reading respondents' stories with the strong sense that popular historymaking was intensely social and intensely intimate, that people relied heavily on those they felt closest to as they engaged the past in ways that mattered most to them. With individuals they trusted or at least knew, they probed experiences and constructed the traditions they wanted to sustain. In these relationships they discovered what they shared and did not share with others, shaped and reshaped memories into trajectories, made and changed commitments to sustain and change heritages, and generally created the perceptual world they wanted to inhabit. In finding the will to overcome the destructive habits and inertia in their lives, several respondents told us, favorable experiences with Alcoholics Anonymous had helped--demonstrating that many people needed the intense encouragement and shared experience of others who had been through what they were about to undertake. Far from mechanically storing and retrieving fully formed representations of the past, respondents constructed and used pasts as products and by-products of living their lives. In order to steer through dangers and opportunities as they imagined how to move from past toward future, they needed to focus their critical and empathetic skills on making sense of the present. The point of engaging the past was to understand choices in the present to shape the future.

When we approach the more familiar content of academic history, we need to investigate how in their intimate relationships individuals used and did not use, went along with and defied larger "historical" trends. At this level the dichotomy between "intimate" and "national," public and private, dissolves into dynamic and reciprocal interaction. Respondents more often mentioned public experiences than private ones as the most formative of their lives, but they mentioned those public events most often as intimate experiences. What they remembered was the personal contexts in which they engaged the public events (teachers and students in a fifth grade class weeping when they heard of Kennedy's assassination) or their own participation in those events (fighting in a battle in World War II). They often drew personal meanings when they recalled public figures as the most important individuals in their lives. In distinguishing between those experiences that still live in active memory, passed on orally from individual to individual because people believe that they continue to provide meaningful anchors for the present, on one hand, and those experiences now remembered only in writing--in books, written by professional historians--Pierre Nora draws a more important distinction than that between personal and national pasts. What matters is whether something lives for participants in the present.2

In other words, walling off public from private pasts doesn't make sense. When not forced to choose between family and national pasts, half the respondents who wanted their children to learn their family heritage also wanted their children to learn their national heritage. They connected these heritages, intimate with public, each time they toured a museum or visited a site with family or friends, each time they reenacted a battle or showed objects they had collected to others. They named both national figures and family members as influences; about the same number of people in the national sample (24) named John F. Kennedy as a formative influence as named their grandfathers. Many worried about how larger historical developments--economic insecurity, waning of discipline--might have eroded the family, turning it into a source of disintegration instead of support. Respondents gave meaning to large phenomena like immigration or economic depression by describing how they had changed and been changed by passage through those experiences.

A fundamentally historical culture centered on individual participation would invite members to explore just how individuals conform to and resist larger historical trends, how the rhythms and narratives of family life fit or do not fit those of changing power and institutional arrangements in the larger society. It would envision individuals as more than examples of large and impersonal cultures and institutions. It would take seriously how they live lives and meet needs in relationships driven by forces different from those that power institutions and cultures. The best microhistory does this already. In Mr. Bligh's Bad Language, Greg Dening tries to reconstruct events leading up to mutiny on H. M. S. Bounty by speculating from observation around him about how forty men might relate to each other when confined in cramped space over a long period of time. But Dening places these timeless observations about personal relationships in the context of the late eighteenth century, when authority was being challenged in new ways by the French and American revolutions and British civilization was encountering Polynesian cultures for the first time.3

Not until this century did scholars begin to understand the defining importance of primary relationships to larger phenomena. Social scientists began to peel back large formal institutions like factories and armies, large cultures like Irish-American immigrant communities, mass media audiences, and student movements of the 1960s to discover that in each case the real source of creativity and productivity lay in the myriad primary groups whose members took responsibility for the larger whole.4 And for scholars, as for respondents in our survey, the question was often how much and what kind of control they had or could imagine as individuals and in groups. Workers formed unions, audiences shaped television content, blacks acquired rights in circumstances they had not chosen. They probed their pasts to imagine how they had made a difference then and might in the future.

Respondents said that their families and friends both exemplified and resisted larger historical trajectories. Sometimes they saw their families as swept along by a larger thrust of history, toward greater tolerance and encouragement for women and members of minority groups, for example. But sometimes they saw their families as trying to resist a thrust of history--toward greater crime, permissiveness, or materialism, for instance--that seemed to threaten their cohesion and even survival. When they talked about religion--especially evangelical religion, which had an appeal so powerful that it seems the most likely common ground on which some respondents from different cultures can recognize each other--they told agonizing stories of struggles to bring their own trajectories into line with a single, eternal master narrative that extended from the creation of the earth to the end of time.

Respondents identified a fundamentally historical way of viewing movement through time by emphasizing change and continuity when they talked about themselves and their worlds. In contrast to the few who viewed human nature as fixed and unchanging, greed or racial hatred as timeless themes, most emphasized change as a basic fact of life. They believed it was important to identify the causes, direction, pace, and consequences of change, to locate turning points when new directions were introduced.

And they had a deep sense that values and contexts changed over time. They reported that grandparents lived by different values than they did. They measured how older values had ebbed and new ones had replaced them, how the world seemed to move faster than before. Fearing that changes in the larger society might erode their capacity to sustain values their parents had taught them, they wondered how individuals could preserve those traditions in the face of erosion in the larger society of values like freedom, morality, or neighborliness. But they also spoke of themselves and their parents as products of their times. Some described individuals as products of prejudices formed in earlier times against women, racial minorities, and homosexuals, or as products of the financially insecure thirties or socially conformist fifties or politically rebellious sixties.

By placing individuals at the center as both actors in and observers of history, we can build a historical culture around participation. Individuals, after all, experience, interpret, revisit, reinterpret--in short, they remember and forget. Nations, cultures, and institutions can't, even though politicians and pundits pretend that they can. Individuals can discover, recognize, ignore, cross-examine, fear, dream, hope. Moving the focus of history from texts to interpreters turns historical culture from a spectator sport into something created by participants. A Florida fund-raiser reported "being force-fed" history in school and disliking it, but finding history "more interesting when it was done on my own terms" after leaving school. Better yet, by comparing their experiences and interpretations with those of others, individuals create empathy that permits them to enter into the experiences of people from other times and places, people from other backgrounds. Indeed, as observers from Charles Horton Cooley to Zygmunt Bauman and Arne Vetlesen have pointed out, people develop their empathy toward strangers not as political choices or philosophical abstractions but from intimate contacts with people around them.5

This focus on individuals reminds me of Norbert Elias's brilliant, counterintuitive point that individuals are larger than groups because individuals contain within themselves so many different identities. An individual could be a woman, lawyer, Republican, Chicagoan, lesbian, Irish-American. Each piece of her identity carries with it materials and traditions that the individual, alone or with others, could turn into a collective past with constantly evolving individual variations. And yet to describe any one of these groups is also to fall far short of describing any individual who contains so many potential identities and locations between identities with which to describe where he or she has been. While some individuals and group leaders draw circles around poles of identity and try to keep members from straying and strangers from entering, many people describe themselves as "betwixt and between" identities, to use George Sánchez's description of Mexican American life--as border crossers who construct their lives between Mexican and American, Republican and Democrat, gay and straight.6 Choosing among potential identities, locating themselves at poles or somewhere along continua between poles as circumstances inspired them, individuals revealed stunning creativity as they made and remade their narratives of where they had come from and were heading. This intimate work was so hard and creative that from time to time they sought out resting places built by others who seemed to have followed paths like their own, places where they could rest from individual labors and find social support.

I too am attracted by the collective pasts that black and Indian respondents presented in this study. But I fear that emphasizing different racial contents may obscure basic similarities in how respondents from all groups constructed their pasts. Among African American and Indian respondents as well as whites, a majority said that their family pasts were their most important pasts. For all races, family provided both the content and the context where respondents talked about identity, morality, and agency. The major difference was that black and Indian parents and grandparents tended to incorporate experiences of the race into family materials they presented youngsters, while whites tended to limit their accounts to extended families. In both cases the challenges of making trajectories and taking responsibility were those older family members wanted to instill in younger ones as they tried to teach them how to use the past to live their lives.

Respondents brooded about this question of whether and under what circumstances individuals could develop a sense of a common past and a common future. Looking back, a retired Tulsan thought that the most remarkable lesson to be learned from his experience in World War II was that "the American people when they are confronted with a catastrophe. . . will do everything in their power to come together for the common cause to defeat the enemy." As he reflected on what he had just told an interviewer, he paused, compared the 1940s to the present, and posed a troubling question about whether individual Americans would be likely in the 1990s to come together to make a nation. "I'm not too sure that would hold in today's environment," he said. "I think people put too much emphasis on themselves as individuals."

Instead of inheriting or retrieving fully formed collective pasts, individuals felt bursts of recognition when they suddenly felt common points of identity with others in the present that they made into shared experiences and trajectories. Across affiliations, from family to race or religion, from sex or sexual orientation to nation or humanity, individuals experienced moments when they felt more and less connected, more and less alone, when they recognized shared experiences. From a personal trauma, a television program, or a new acquaintance they suddenly felt connected to others, with a bond of family, race, or nation. Indeed, the changing possibilities for discovering what they shared with others often inspired the most empowering--and discouraging--uses respondents made of the past.7

A fundamentally historical culture would recognize that there are seasons when people use the past differently. As children and young adults, respondents were eager to figure out where they came from and where they were heading: their identities. As adults, they stood between generations and worried about how they could shape their lives and take responsibility for those older and younger who depended on them. And as they aged, they worried about leaving a legacy so that the next generations could learn and use what they had learned.

In such a culture people would face basic historical questions. Some people were attracted to the past on its own terms, because of its pastness, its otherness. For them the past could be an object of curiosity, a source of old traces like fossils or arrowheads, or a reservoir of alternatives to the present. But for others the past offered links to the present, not breaks from it.

In a participatory historical culture members would explore whether things from the past were like and unlike the present, the sources of change or continuity. By revisiting or reliving the past they could reinterpret it as they unearthed new sources but also as they experienced new needs in the present. In their interpretations and narratives, respondents felt torn between a desire for authenticity (that the story meet present needs) and for accuracy (that it conform to what happened at the original moment). They sought sources to verify contested accounts, so they could decide whom to believe. In debates recognizable to professional historians, respondents argued about change and continuity, authenticity and accuracy, as they constructed and reconstructed narratives of their lives and times.

A fundamentally historical culture, in short, would be one with many levels, uses, points of access, recognitions. It would recognize similarities and respect differences in grandmothers' stories, museum exhibitions, and manuscript collections as trusted sources for approaching the past.


I can't leave a discussion of participatory historical culture without exploring implications of our findings for history's traditional civic mission. Since the days of the Israelite, Greek, and Roman cultures, we have assigned history the task of defining nation or creed, of proclaiming core values, and of teaching citizens to connect their personal aspirations with their civic heritages.8 With these traditions of giving visibility and voice to people as they have tried to assemble their experiences and advance their needs, history appealed to me in graduate school in the 1960s as a natural field in which I could contribute to making a better society.

The hard civic challenges for a participatory culture grounded in history revolve around how people might move outward from their intimate worlds, connect with others, recognize common experiences, and settle on common narratives. Those challenges have become much more difficult over the thirty years since I attended graduate school. In the 1960s it was easy for citizens to find and engage each other. Unprecedented numbers of people mobilized into highly visible social movements through which they spoke collectively and acted to engage everyone in public contests. Over the next generation, as those social movements have receded, new industries have emerged to reshape the very meanings of "political participation" and "civic forum." They have tried to change who participates in the civic forum and on what terms. They invented means for finding and listening to people--market research, opinion polls, focus groups--and the means for talking--advertising, public relations, spin doctoring--that transferred the initiative for shaping the civic arena from citizens to opinion managers. They manufactured an arena in which public "conversation" took the form of raising issues that mattered to opinion managers, measuring denominators that turned individuals into a mass, and then crafting appeals to move the mass. As opinion industries have come to define where and how citizens and politicians engage each other, they have driven both voters and legislators away from the civic arena in record numbers. Indeed, the new opinion managers possess the arena by dispossessing citizens and politicians. They leave citizens unsure even where to enter the civic arena.9

Before I could imagine how professional historians could assist in building a participatory historical culture, I had to sort through some heavy baggage that history has been carrying around since the inventors of professional historymaking in the nineteenth century defined the mission that set themselves apart from amateurs. The story of history, they taught us, should be above all the story of the nation and of national institutions, events, policies, and cultures. In the 1960s, when I was in graduate school in Madison, the nation was self-evidently the central unit of historical analysis and the policies and institutions of the nation-state obviously provided crucial vehicles for shaping society.

Over the next thirty years, changes in the economy and culture increasingly knocked out these important props. Most of the people we talked with from all backgrounds saw history differently. The nation or national institutions and events were not the prime movers or actors or themes; they and their lives were. In questioning the centrality and authority of institutions, our respondents provided independent confirmation of the growing need for history, even if it is to be the story of the rise and fall of power centers, to interrogate its traditional starting places.

The nation-state still has policies and institutions, but it is by no means clear that these provide the most necessary, desirable, creative, or responsible arenas in which people can control their lives or fulfill a civic heritage.10 As we explore challenges to the core of historical practice and its traditional civic mission--the increasingly global transit of people, capital, goods, and cultures; the decentering of authority and truth in scholarship and life, raids on the regulations and safety net of the state--historians can contribute simply by doing what we do well: we can explore where and how the nation-state has actually touched people's experiences, what it has done well and poorly, to what or whom it has lost resources and authority, and what people have expected and trusted, as well as what they no longer expect and trust, from its traditions and institutions. We can investigate what people want and fear to replace the nation-state to focus authority and common will in ways that the nation has done in the past.

Precisely because the props of professional history have been knocked out, it is crucial at this time that we not create an essentialized dichotomy between "historians" and "people" and that we interrogate and explore common ground from which to use the past to reshape the civic arena according to popular concerns. Our respondents profoundly distrusted many large institutions, including the nation-state, reflecting a deepening pattern of popular alienation that began in the 1960s and 1970s and increased dramatically in the 1980s and 1990s. The percentage of Americans who told Gallup's pollsters that they can "trust Washington to do what is right all or most of the time" fell incredibly from 78 percent in 1964 to 19 percent by 1994. By a 75-19 percent margin Americans told pollsters in 1994 that "government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves."11

Since both institutions and national narratives seemed so far removed from everyday experiences and needs, respondents retreated into their intimate relationships as places where they could trust and use the past. They kept the civic heritage alive not by choosing sides in political conflicts over institutions they didn't trust and over issues and images that mattered mostly to opinion managers, but by using the past actively in their intimate relationships to shape their lives. They developed superb foundations for a participatory civics: they learned that people could change or be changed by experience and circumstances, that things have been and might be different than at present, that encounters with others could become bonds through which they took responsibility to change political direction. They recognized that history indeed possessed the valuable "powers of the past" that Harvey Kaye has listed as perspective, critique, consciousness, remembrance, and imagination--all powers many people told us they also valued and practiced.12

The basic civic challenges for a participatory historical culture take place as people move beyond individual experiences to widen narratives and imagine how they might make a difference in the larger world. As I imagined how to address these challenges, I soon realized that I was faltering when I focused on political institutions. Instead of envisioning how existing political arenas might assemble individuals, I kept being drawn--as I had from the first time that I listened to these interviews--toward the classroom as a more natural place to experience and explore the making of public narratives and progressive civics.

In imagining how a participatory historical culture could help people reach from the personal to the collective, I suggest three tentative observations about how we might use the past and then illustrate them with possible applications to classrooms. First, we can find where people are and how they want to be heard by listening hard to the voices and styles they select as they use the past. Second, we can imagine how to improve our present circumstances by turning to the past for alternatives. And finally, we can use the past to develop institutions and programs that better reflect our needs.

The ways people use the past can help us find and converse with real people at a time when opinion industries, scholars, and pundits have tried to subordinate people to their agendas. Two discoveries emerged from our study of how people use the past. The first is that everyone uses the past for similar and fundamentally human purposes--such as to establish identity, morality, immortality, and agency. People use the past to imagine how they might change and be changed by other people and by circumstances. And they use the past critically, creatively, and actively, in making and testing narratives of change and continuity. They re-examine trajectories of their lives and imagine how they might fit differently into their worlds. The second discovery is that individuals create a stunning variety of content and conclusions: as unique individuals, as products of collective circumstances and traditions, as human beings. Historical narratives thus follow Clifford Geertz's observation that "thought is spectacularly multiple as product and wondrously singular as process."13 In the classroom, students could write and compare accounts of experiences, and study autobiographies. With such exercises they would face the challenges of history to civics: to seek the core, the commonality, the singularity of processes that recur and then to contrast that core with individual and group variations shaped by particular moments and contexts. In the tension between the unique individual and the group, the past and the present, people presented how they wanted to be seen and heard. By exploring how all biographical stories are both alike and different, we can recognize and respect both common and different needs as individuals experienced them.

The past is a reservoir of alternatives to the present, many survey respondents told us in pointing toward a possible use of the past for people to shape a civic arena. In perhaps the most far-reaching claim for history's ability to make available all human experience to any individual, Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote that "Who hath access to this universal mind is a party to all that is or can be done. What Plato has thought, he may think; what a saint has felt, he may feel; what at any time has befallen any man, he can understand."14 By recovering things from the past or by looking at experience differently we can see how to think and act differently in the future. The past can challenge us with eloquent, brilliant, troubling material that widens our present experience and wisdom. It provides perspectives to engage, accounts to cross-examine, and opportunities to hone skills of empathy, compassion, and reflection.15 Good history teachers have long presented students with documents, artifacts, pictures, and films in which people address issues of identity, narrative, and agency, thereby introducing students to a variety of perspectives on moral issues, political alternatives, and ways of making individual and collective narratives.

How can we develop sympathy for others when "we have no immediate experience of what other men feel?" asked Adam Smith, as he sought to explain how empathy might be compatible with his larger conviction that the common good came when individuals pursued their self-interests. The answer, he reasoned, was "by conceiving what we ourselves should feel in the like situation": "by the imagination we place ourselves in his situation, we conceive ourselves enduring all the same torments, we enter as it were into his body, and become in some measure the same person with him, and thence form some idea of his sensations, and even feel something which, through weaker in degree, is not altogether unlike them."16 By trying to imagine how other people experienced something, we can develop a moral sympathy for others.

Since respondents seemed naturally to begin narratives with reflections on how they had changed and been changed by experiences, I see another major use of the past in the dynamic interactions between individuals and larger institutions. From time to time institutions have provided participatory and interpretive centers of autonomy, but our study suggests that at this moment most people don't trust them and that the work of building autonomy and making interpretations now takes place intimately, in primary relationships. Students could use these institutions in different ways, to explore how national events or institutions changed the lives of different individuals and in turn how individuals shaped the events and institutions. In what ways did the rhythms of their intimate lives converge and diverge from those of larger phenomena like immigration, moral decline, war, depression? By supplementing the conventional classroom focus on the rise and fall of institutions with timeless human experiences--tragedy, hope, fear, love, loss--students can inquire about connections between living fulfilling lives as people and trying to change and sustain institutions.

By starting historical inquiries with experience, students can measure how institutions and programs and cultures have succeeded and failed to meet people's needs and expectations. Students can imagine more responsive institutions and politics by exploring how people have discovered, recognized, shared, and mobilized experiences and presented them as common narratives in the civic arena. Readings and discussions could focus on moments in the past when people recognized common experiences and mobilized to create more responsive politics.

We historians might gain a sense of our own choices by studying how political debate has evolved to force individuals to do the work of interpreting and mobilizing what in the past century was done by cultures, parties, and groups. We might explore how and with what consequences opinion managers have come to shape the public arena, and get a comparative perspective by looking at which individuals, groups, cultures, and institutions at other times and places did the work of interpreting and mobilizing experiences. With cases from the past, we might imagine how political policies could begin not in ideologies or institutions but when people insist that policies or public spaces reflect their own experiences and narratives. A politics that values active individual engagement over group, ideology, institution may be built by listening for and to the deepest needs that individuals present, in places that presently elude pundits and pollsters, as they use the past to sustain and change the course of their lives and the world.


I am indebted to Ken Cmiel, Michael Frisch, Harvey Kaye, Bruno Ramirez, Roy Rosenzweig, Esther Thelen, and Jennifer Thelen for helping me to formulate and express the ideas in this essay.

1. David Thelen, "History After the Enola Gay Controversy: An Introduction," Journal of American History 82 (Dec. 1995): 1029-1035. Back.

2. Pierre Nora, "General Introduction: Between Memory and History," in Lawrence D. Kritzman, ed., Realms of Memory: Rethinking the French Past, vol. 1 (New York: Columbia University Press, 1996), 1-20. Back.

3. Dening, Mr. Bligh's Bad Language. For other examples, see Kim Chernin, In My Mother's House: A Daughter's Story (New Haven: Ticknor & Fields, 1983) and Jonathan Schell, History in Sherman Park: An American Family and the Reagan-Mondale Election (New York: Knopf, 1987). Back.

4. For examples, see William I. Thomas and Florian Znanecki, The Polish Peasant in Europe and America (1918; reprint [Eli Zaretsky, ed.], Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1984); Elton Mayo, The Human Problems of an Industrial Civilization (1933; reprint, New York: Viking, 1966); Samuel Stouffer et al., The American Soldier (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1949); Edward Shils, "The Study of the Primary Group," in Harold Lasswell and Daniel Lerner, eds., The Policy Sciences: Recent Developments in Scope and Method (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1951), 44-69; Elihu Katz and Paul F. Lazarsfeld, Personal Choice: The Part Played by People in the Flow of Mass Communications (Glencoe: Free Press, 1955), chs. 2-6; Fiske, Television Culture, ch. 5; Palmer, Lively Audience; Jack Whalen and Richard Flacks, Beyond the Barricades: The Sixties Generation Grows Up (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1989); David Thelen, Becoming Citizens in the Age of Television (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1996). Back.

5. Charles Horton Cooley, Social Organization: A Study of the Larger Mind (New York: Scribner's, 1909); Zygmunt Bauman, Modernity and the Holocaust (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1989); Arne Vetlesen, "Why Does Proximity Make a Moral Difference? Coming to Terms with a Lesson Learned from the Holocaust," Praxis International 12 (Jan. 1993): 371-86. Back.

6. Norbert Elias, What Is Sociology? (New York: Columbia University Press, 1978); Sánchez, Becoming Mexican American. For a case study of changing constructions and applications of identities as they affect citizenship, see Lisa Lowe, Immigrant Acts: On Asian American Cultural Politics (Durham: Duke University Press, 1996). Back.

7. For an excellent example of how individuals suddenly felt a burst of connection even as they constructed very different trajectories around that connection, see Alissa J. Rubin, "Black Women March as One in Philadelphia," Los Angeles Times, 26 Oct. 1997, A1. Back.

8. For a recent collection of nine brief statements connecting history and nation, see "Teaching American History," The American Scholar (Winter 1998): 91-106. Back.

9. For a case study of how opinion managing came to displace citizens and how citizens fought back, see Thelen, Becoming Citizens. See also Susan Herbst, Numbered Voices: How Opinion Polling Has Shaped American Politics (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993). Back.

10. William Greider has observed that no elected government, left or right, in any developed country could provide a definition of the national interest that could persuade its electorate. See Greider, One World, Ready or Not: The Manic Logic of Global Capitalism (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1997), 18. Back.

11. Kevin Phillips, Arrogant Capital: Washington, Wall Street, and the Frustration of American Politics (Boston 1994), 7; Steven J. Rosenstone et al., "American National Election Study" (1994, computer file; in possession of Indiana University Political Science Laboratory); William Schneider, " 'Off With Their Heads': The Confidence Gap and the Revolt Against Professionalism in Politics," in Gary Marks and Larry Diamond, eds., Reexamining Democracy: Essays in Honor of Seymour Martin Lipset (Newbury Park: Sage Publications, 1992). Back.

12. Kaye, The Powers of the Past. Back.

13. Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology (New York, 1983), 151. Back.

14. Ralph Waldo Emerson, "History," in Essays: First Series (London: George Routledge and Sons, n.d.), 9. Back.

15. For a spirited elaboration of this perspective, see David Harlan, The Degradation of American History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1997). Back.

16. Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), Part First, section 1, chapter 1. Back.



Home/List of Tables/Methdological Appendix Colo