Sometimes, a look back in our own history is useful in reminding us how enduring some of the issues are, and perhaps reminding us of strategies that have been up for discussion before.
State Historian James Sullivan, speaking at the annual meeting of the New York State Historical Association (NYSHA) in October 1917, articulated several views about local historical societies and teaching history. (His speech was published as “Federating and Affiliating Local Historical Societies” in NYSHA’s Proceedings, Vol. XVII, 1919)
“Some of those which I have seen seemed to me largely associations in which social affairs have become predominant. We may usually judge these on arriving at the place of the meeting, by the number of stylish automobiles which are drawn up outside the door.”
“Other historical associations have the character of conventions of old settlers,” he continued. “The old farm wagons and automobiles of less expensive make bear witness to the character of the assemblage in the interior. These meetings are usually of the people who know the community by virtue of being brought up in it, and therefore have a love for it which is entirely personal.”
Both types have important roles to play but both are missing a key element of the community: “there is a conspicuous absence of young people….unless our historical associations appeal to the young people it is very likely that they will die out and the good work which they do fail of accomplishment.”
Sullivan suggested more activities to appeal to young people, including “excursions to historic places in the community,” outdoor pageants in the summer and “indoor pageants and tableaux in the winter,” and “having their meetings at various places of historical interest in the territory which the association’s membership covers.”
But he saw a more fundamental reason for the disconnect with young people: historical societies “do not keep in touch sufficiently with the present-day world….connect the past with the present.” That is relatively easy to do, he suggested. For instance, a paper on the draft system in the Civil War might be paired with another on how the draft was currently working in World War I. Another example might be to contrast the work of nursing and relief programs in the Civil War with the Red Cross in the ongoing war. Still another might be to contrast the role of transportation. The more history is used to shed light on current issues, the State Historian suggested, the more people will be interested in it.
Sullivan went further. “If our young people are to be patriotic, they must be taught to love something which is concrete and not abstract. The true way to teach a child to be patriotic is to teach him to love the community in which he is living. Unfortunately, our tendencies have been the other way and we have spent our time teaching pupils about things which are very remote and difficult for any exhibition of devotion.”
Part of the problem was the education of teachers, who receive little training in local history. They usually take up teaching in communities some distance from where they grew up or were educated. Furthermore, a teacher “is rather disinclined to neglect any opportunity of becoming a member of the local historical society, feeling that she is not part of the community. This feeling should be counteracted as much as possible by the local historical society’s president, who should seek every opportunity to encourage the teachers to come to the meetings whether they are of a social or a historical nature.”
Historical societies should cooperate, coordinate collecting, share resources, and help lift the whole historical enterprise. In any given region, “a central body of active members may organize and stimulate historical activity and bring about a coordination of specialties such as church history, industrial history, and other like phases.”
Historical societies can make other connections as well. “One of their excellent functions is that of taking an interest in the history textbooks used in the schools, offering prizes for studies in local history by teachers and pupils, and publishing some of the prize essays as pamphlets.”
State Historian Sullivan hit a number of points: the mission and role of historical societies, their sources of membership and support, the need for cooperation among them, their potential role in education, and the need to teach young people about local history, in part as a way of promoting patriotism.
All of those are issues still being debated today.
Photo: The Hancock House, Ticonderoga, home of the New York State Historical Association from 1926 through 1939 (NYSHA Photo).