Feinman: We Need A NYS History Advisory Coalition

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titanicIn a previous post, I reviewed the position of the Commissioner of Education. Mary Ellen Elia had received an open letter from two prominent state historians about the state historian position. In this post, I’ll consider what happened next.

The Commissioner did not respond directly to the letter. The letter called for reinstating the Office of State Historian as an independent position, reporting directly to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education. If the Commissioner of Education did not wish to respond, she had every right to delegate it to the Commissioner of Cultural Education.

In case you are not clear on exactly what that position is, there is an Office of Cultural Education. The name itself does not provide a clear indication of its areas of responsibilities. According to its website this department consists of: the New York State Archives; the
New York State Library; the New York State Museum (which includes the State Historian); along with the Office of Educational Television and Public Broadcasting; and the New York State Summer School of the Arts.

There is a Committee on Cultural Education within the Board of Regents. The Chair is Roger Tilles of Long Island (Regent.Tilles@nysed.gov). He has spoken at MANY and attended the History Roundtable held by Assemblyman Engelbright in May of 2014, regarding the proposed NYS History Commission. Tilles is someone for the History Community to contact regarding the position of the State Historian as well as the status of history in general in the state.

Judith Johnson from Westchester is another person on the committee to consider contacting (Regent.Johnson@nysed.gov). She was a superintendent in the Peekskill school system. While there, she spoke at an Underground Railroad conference held in Peekskill. When a tree on the campus of the high school used in the Revolution to hang spies finally died, she mourned the loss as part of the heritage of the community. These actions are suggestive of someone who has an interest in history and how to bring local history to students.

The other members are:

Christine Cea, Staten Island (Regent.Cea@nysed.gov)

James Cottrell, member at large, Brooklyn (Regent.Cottrell@nysed.gov)

Judith Chin, Queens (Regent.Chin@nysed.gov) who is identified as a lifelong educator and was supervising superintendent in the NYC school system with an interest in immigration based on her own family history

Beverly Ouderkirk, North Country (Regent.Ouderkirk@nysed.gov) who is identified as having been a teacher, principal, and superintendent in a variety of locations throughout the state.

I have had no contact with any of them. This committee should not be ignored in the effort to strengthen the status of state and local history in the schools and communities of the state as well as in the state bureaucracy.

As for the position of the Deputy Commissioner for the Office of Cultural Education, it is vacant at present. Several advocates have proposed an Office of New York State Historian that would report to this person parallel with the Archives, Library, and Museum. Judy Wellman and Carol Kammen recommended that decisions about the state historian position be deferred until this position was filled. However, as it turned out there were regulatory constraints best known to those inside the Albany bubble requiring filling the state historian position by May 19 and that deadline took priority.

This meant if Commissioner of Education Mary Ellen Elia wanted to delegate responding to the letter from Carol and Judy, there effectively was no one to delegate it to. The request being made was to elevate the State Historian to a position reporting directly to the presently-vacant Deputy Commissioner for Cultural Education. For Mary Ellen to delegate the response to Mark Schaming, the Director of the State Museum was inappropriate. Even if he agrees whole heartedly with the request, he does not have the authority to comply with it: he can not elevate a position to his own level or to direct reporting to the Deputy Commissioner of Cultural Education.

Why then did Mary Ellen delegate the response to someone who lacks the authority to act on it? Did she not understand what was being asked? Did a staff assistant who screens the mail to her simply tell her the subject was the State Historian position so she delegated it without reading it? Did she read and understand the request, reject it, and delegate it to Mark to write the brushoff? There is insufficient information available, but no matter which of the three it is, it reflects poorly on her.

Mark’s response to Judy and Carol contributed to a post by former State Historian Bob Weible on New York History Blog on May 10.  In his post, he characterized the response rather harshly:

His response simply thanked Kammen and Wellman for their interest and clumsily assured them that things were being handled appropriately. He never answered the question of why the department chose to ignore its 2011 Regents-approved strategic plan to “reinvent” the Office of State History.

To be fair to Mark, he has no authority to reinvent that Office. He never should have been charged with responding to the letter in the first place. The responsibility belongs higher up with the Commissioner of Education who delegated when she should have taken charge.

Bob also referred to a letter from the New York Academy of History (NYAH) to Governor Cuomo advocating for a more vigorous effort on behalf of New York State history. The letter to Cuomo, which also seems to have gone nowhere, was signed by Ken Jackson, who gave the opening address when the Path through History project was rolled out on August 28, 2012.

What then should the history community do now? One of the suggestions to Cuomo was the creation of an Advisory Board consisting of professional historians. According to the website of NYAH its own advisory board consists of:

Kenneth T. Jackson (Chair), Barzun Prof. of History, Columbia University
Carol Berkin, Distinguished Prof. of History Emerita, Baruch College
Laurence Hauptman, SUNY Distinguished Prof. Emeritus of History
Lisa Keller, Prof. of History, Purchase College SUNY
Susan Lewis, Deputy Chair and Graduate Advisor, Dept. of History, SUNY New Paltz
Dr. Dennis J. Maika, New Netherland Institute.

Expanding on that list of concerned historians, the open letter of Carol and Judy was sent to:

Rose Harvey, Commissioner, New York State Office of Parks, Recreation, and Historic Preservation
Thomas J. Ruller, Archivist, New York State Archives
Gavin Landry, Director, I Love New York

Amie Alden, Executive Chair, Government Appointed Historians of Western NY
Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO, NYS Historical Association
Jay DeLorenzo, Executive Director, Preservation League of NYS
Carol Faulkner, President, Upstate New York Women’s History Group
Peter Feinman, Institute of History, Archaeology, and Education
Lynn (Spike) Herzing, Director, New York Cultural and Heritage Tourism Network
Carol Kammen, Historian, Tompkins County
Lisa Keller, New York Academy of History
Devin Lander, then Ex. Director, Museum Association of NY
Sara Ogger, New York Humanities Council
Gerry Smith, President, Association of Public Historians
John Warren, New York History Blog
Judith Wellman Director, Historical New York Research Associates

Some additional individuals in the private sector with a statewide perspective to be considered for an advisory board are:

Robert E. Bullock, The Nelson A. Rockefeller Institute of Government
Bruce Dearstyne, former archivist and author/blogger/columnist
John McEneny, former municipal historian and state legislator
Bob Weible, former state historian and representatives from the New York State Archaeological Association/New York Archaeological Council and New York State Council of Social Studies among others.

Carol and Judy had to write an open letter because there is no venue through which to express their concerns. There is no state-wide organization advocating on behalf of the history community. I recommend that the history community take it upon itself to form such an advisory group rather than wait for the Governor’s permission to do.

The New York State History Advisory Coalition should consist of state-minded representatives of the history community who would meet on a quarterly basis in Albany to discuss, develop, and advocate with the State legislature, State Education Department, Board of Regents, and NYSOPRHP as appropriate in support of a history agenda in New York State. Topics for consideration by such a group include but are not limited to:

1. The position of the State Historian including staff, resources, and funding

2. The duties and responsibilities of the municipal historians including training, funding, and revised guidelines

3. The place of state and local history in the k-12 curriculum and the training, certification, and professional development of teachers accordingly

4. The development and promotion of the history heritage of the state for cultural heritage tourism so for example people watching AMC’s “Turn” about Washington’s spy ring in Long Island don’t just see ads for “Virginia is for Lovers” but are directed to real New York Paths through History about the State’s role in the American Revolution

5. Establishing funding sources through the REDC process for anniversaries, state heritage areas, and Paths through History that encourage cooperation and collaboration so they aren’t merely jargon buzz words but the State puts its money where its mouth is.

6. Connecting the residents of the state to their local and state history as a matter of civics to enhance the social fabric so we can live with each other as fellow New Yorkers.

7. Maintaining a database of the academic publications related to state history and supporting the conferences, symposia, and history weekends which are held throughout the state.

Suggestions welcomed. Comments appreciated. Who is willing to host the first meeting? Who would attend?

Photo courtesy of James Cameron Titanic Wiki.

3 thoughts on “Feinman: We Need A NYS History Advisory Coalition

  1. Big Burly

    In addition to the preliminary list of next steps i wonder if reinstating the requirement for at least a couple of courses in NYS history be necessary for matriculation. An easy decision by Regents? Hopefully as easy as removing the requirement for history studies a short time prior to the Path through History announcement by our Gov.

  2. William Hosley

    My father – now age 90 – moved to NYS from Boston in 1948 and knows NY State – from Jamestown to Lake Placid – better than most. I chuckle when I recall his description of State govt as 120,000 people doing the work of 60,000. LIke him, I increasingly regard govt as tangential, irrelevant and at times genuinely in the way of progress when it come to culture and even tourism. Most of NY state’s 100s of museums – most small – have never had a dime of pubic support from the state – and wouldn’t get it if they knew where to ask. Maybe its best to underscore the importance of self-reliance and pray that something finally triggers a slimming down of the leviathan that is state and federal govt. Its not working for most of the heritage players and that’s not likely to change

  3. Linda Mallalieu

    There is some overlap here with NY State advocates for public education. Parent advocates encounter similar non-responses from the Commissioner of Education and the Department of Education. They have also learned that some Regents board members are more open than others to new ideas, transparency and communication. As it happens, several of the Cultural Education committee members are of the “breath of fresh air” variety. As the state creates social studies standards, allies in the historians community are needed to ensure that any new standards imposed are research based, grade appropriate, and developed with teacher input and expertise.


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