On May 29, Assemblyman Steve Englebright (Suffolk) convened a roundtable for the proposed New York State History Commission. Also in attendance were Assemblywoman Margaret Markey (Queens) and Senator George Latimer (Westchester), the senator from my district who had just become a co-sponsor.
Invited participants with name cards sat around the table. In addition there were about six of us who attended the public meeting as a result of my post to The New York History Blog. Assemblyman Englebright graciously allowed us to participate in the discussion along with those invited. I consider this meeting to have been a fact-finding or information-gathering meeting by the legislators who were seeking to learn the state of affairs in the New York history community.
As previously reported in my post on the American Revolution, Assemblyman Englebright brought a personal perspective to the cause of the legislation. He is the representative from Setauket, home of America’s first spy ring which is now a TV series. For background, he drew on his own committee oversight for the Office of Government Services (OGS). In that capacity he learned that responsibility for history was splintered among various government agencies. His initial attempt to resolve the problem of fractured lines of authority was to propose a reorganization which would bring together the scattered history departments into one organization. His new attempt is to create this history commission which would include representatives from the various departments while providing guidance to all of them and a single face to the public.
Assemblywoman Markey spoke of her earlier life as chair of the Queens Tourism committee reporting to the borough president. She is proud of her role in creating the Flushing Freedom Trail and expressed concern over what had happened since then. Prior to the meeting she spoke of her commitment to the history of the underground railroad and slavery in Queens.
Senator Latimer mentioned that when he drives to Albany he takes local roads instead of the Taconic and drives by Martin Van Buren’s home in Columbia County. “Who?” he rhetorically asked. Do New Yorkers know he was president?
In his opening comments, Englebright stressed the importance of a sense of place, a term familiar to the history community. People need to know where they live and how they fit it. He envisions the historical process as a passing of the historical legacy baton to the next generation which then will continue the legacy even as it creates its own. Readers of my posts know that this passing the torch has been an essential element in my own view of what communities especially through the schools should do through community rituals.
Regent Tillis echoed Englebright’s concerns. He stated that schools are dropping from the curriculum what makes communities strong. History is being taught as it relates to English literature and less so in its own right. Tillis promised to bring information from this meeting back to the NYS Education Department which includes the New York State Archives, Library, and Museum as well as the schools. These organizations were not present on their own in this initial meeting.
Tillis offered his opinion that the history community needs to know both the Common Core and the new social studies standards. He believes there is a perfect fit between the curriculum and the history sites. This topic also was addressed in one of the sessions at the NYSHA conference in June which I will be writing about separately.
I have recommended to the NYSCSS, which held its board meeting June 7, that county-level meetings be held throughout the state between the social studies teachers and the history community on precisely this issue. I feel that regardless of any state-wide or regional meetings, there is a need to make the presentations in each county. The new social studies standards represent a revision of the 1996 standards and are separate from the Common Core. The history community needs to be apprised of what this means for state and local history. To maximize the dissemination of the information about these standards and the Common Core, meetings between the teachers and history community should be held at the local level beginning in the fall in every county.
One cause for concern mentioned by Englebright (besides money) was “silos.” “Silos” is a jargon term which I must have heard a dozen times since the May 29 Roundtable including at the recent NYSHA conference. I certainly hope that thousands of years from now when historians are studying our time period they will know that we aren’t talking about farming.
The concern for silos can be fatal. Writing for Time Magazine in “We’ve All Got GM Problems,” Rana Foroohar specifically referred to the “Kafkaesque art form” of silence and buck-passing “that kept these silos in place” at GM She writes that the “company’s many departments and employees literally weren’t communicating with one another. She mentions Napoleon and Adam Smith wrestling with military and labor silos and 9/11 as the classic example of the disaster which can occur when information isn’t communicated outside one’s silo. Corporate debacles and information silos go hand in hand.
The danger from history-information silos is less dire, but the death of history through isolation and withering still is a serious issue for the health of a community. To use a specific example mentioned in the Roundtable, Tillis referred to history as a silo within the NYSED, a topic not really connected to the department to the extent it should be. People in the NYS Archives, Library, and Museum don’t necessarily know what the other is doing nor is there a regular venue of communication with NYSOPRHP which was present at the Roundtable. The need to include municipal historians, history societies, and historic sites in the discussion about the new social standards is another example.
In a separate post, I will be writing about the NPS facing some of the same issues and concerns and the recommendations which have been proposed to resolve them at the federal level. That also was a subject at the NYSHA conference. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel at the state level if we can learn from what the NPS is doing. The Erie Canal Heritage Corridor was present at the Roundtable.
The proposed New York State History Commission is designed to integrate these separate lines of communication and end these silos. A recent Time article quotes Ranjay Gulati, Harvard Business School, recommending as the best way to overcome silos is to create a set of core values and mission that everyone understands. He is referring to a situation where everyone is part of the same organization. That is not true for the New York State history community. Therefore one important step in the process is to identify each of the existing silos and to hear their stories before trying to put the pieces together into a coherent whole.
To do so, the Roundtable of May 29 should be considered the first of a series of fact-finding information gathering meetings with history community silos. I propose that the following meetings be held as part of the effort to develop the proposed New York State History commission
1. Municipal Historians – NYS Historian and APHNYS
2. Municipal Historical Societies
3. History Museums – NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, NYCMER, MANY, GHHN
4. Historic Sites/Homes – NYSOPRHP, NPS, MANY
5. Archives – NYS Archives, New York Archives Conference, Archives Partnership Trust
6. Library – NYS Library, NYLA
7. Preservation – NYSOPRHP, New York Landmarks Conservancy, PreserveNY
8. Teachers – NYSED, NYSCSS
9. Archaeologists – NYS Museum, NYSOPRHP, PANY
10. Native American community
11. Local History (markers, monuments, memorials)
12. Performance (re-enactors, storytellers, folk)
13. History/Museum Education – SUNY, CUNY, NYSHA, NYSED
14. Regional – history corridors, trails, byways, routes
15. Scholars – Path through History advisory committee
16. Researchers – genealogists, independent scholars, authors
17. Funders – NYCH, NYSCA
18. Tourism – ILoveNY, Amtrak, MetroNorth, bus, lodging
Needless to say, this list is not cast in stone, is of no legal standing, and is subject to change. In some cases, I am not quite sure who represents certain areas. The intention of this list is to include the silos of the New York State history community whose voices should be heard as part of the effort to create the desperately needed New York State History Commission. I look forward to this project.