Bringing the Age of Revolution Out of the Classrom

This past semester, the question of how to bring knowledge of the Revolutions out of the classrooms has been a major thread in our seminar’s conversations.

When touring the revolutionary collections at the MFA, we discussed the challenges of inserting race and gender into the common narratives of the American revolution, and how to make this knowledge accessible outside of the academy. When she visited our seminar, Julia Douthwaite, who teaches French studies at Notre Dame, made a strong case for diversifying the ways in which we teach the revolutions, by bringing the stories that we tell outside of colleges and into impoverished neighborhoods and public libraries.  While Douthwaite was primarily concerned with keeping the humanities alive (as well as stories of revolutions), Jill Lepore in our most recent symposium addressed the stakes of bringing scholarly knowledge of the revolutions to broader audiences, from both the political and civic perspectives. Lepore sees the political uses of American revolutionary history (which she coined the “tyranny of the American Revolution”), and the centrality of the revolution in the rhetoric of Tea Party members, as a worrisome development. Historians, she argues, have something to say about the relationship between the past and the present, and have a responsibility to explain the revolutionary origins of the United States better than they currently are.

Considering how prevalent this theme has been, it was perfectly fitting that we would end our year-long inquiry into the Age of Revolution, not in our usual classroom, but in the streets of Boston! For this last session, we went on a revolutionary tour of Boston and met with employees of the Bostonian Society and the National Park Service, who struggle daily with the question of how to improve the public understanding of the American Revolution.

Financial constraints and the need to cater to the general public’s expectations of a revolutionary tour figure prominently among the challenges of practicing public history that they highlighted. Competition is fierce with the commercial historical tours, which are led by people who have at most a basic knowledge of the American Revolution. Furthermore, National Park rangers are expected to “deliver what people want”, which is often a retelling of America’s heroic past and its pantheon of famous revolutionaries.

Yet, instead of telling a simplistic story of the revolution, some park rangers and professional historians, such as the ones we have met this Sunday, are working together to tell a better and less celebratory narrative; a coherent story that shows the “big pictures” and fully captures the nuances of the revolutionary period. In particular, they seek to explain the role of commerce, the origins of “liberty” and its contested meanings, and the importance of slavery in the unfolding of the revolutionary events. As Nat Sheidley, the Director of Public History at the Bostonian Society, explained to us: “Visitors come here thinking that the Revolution was ‘liberty!’. We want them to leave thinking: ‘liberty?’.”

Eric, the park ranger who led us through revolutionary Boston, believes that telling individual stories of ordinary people who made the revolution, alongside well-known “heroes”, can not only shed light on what the revolution meant for people at the time, but also demonstrate how complex “freedom” was in their everyday life. Eric was most convincing when telling the story, based on his own archival research, of a free man of African descent whose wife and children were enslaved.

This unusual tour of Revolutionary Boston left me both hopeful and worried. Hopeful, because there are people, like Eric and Nat, who are, as Eric said, “crafting better stories” for the public. Worried, because I wonder what happens when history becomes a commodity. Can historical sites attract people without fundamentally distorting the past? Do we necessarily have to feed into a consumerist approach to history to promote historical knowledge?

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