The View from 32,000 Feet: The American Civil War in Today’s World
In May 2016, I flew with my family to Orlando for a long-awaited trip to Disney World. I brought the newest issue of Civil War History on the plane with me and was reading it early in the flight when the pilot unexpectedly came over the speaker to announce that we were passing York Peninsula to our right and he then went on to describe the events of the Revolutionary War that occurred there. I was stunned—I had never been treated to historical commentary during a commercial flight before. I jotted down his comments into my CWH and kept reading.
Later, he came back on the speaker to announce we were flying over Jamestown and he recounted a few stories of its significance to American history. Granted, I may have been the only person on the plane listening, as most passengers were engrossed in their screens or books, many with earbuds in, or were sleeping. But if even a few of us heard and were interested then I believe the pilot achieved his goal of sharing tidbits of the past with those of us in the present so that we did not fly over the country without thinking somewhat reflectively about what had gone before us. Before the flight ended, he pointed out places such as Kitty Hawk, Cape Fear, the Kennedy Space Center, and even discussed Ponce de Leon’s landing in Florida in 1513.
It struck me as I was simultaneously reading this issue of CWH that discussed the future of Civil War studies that maybe this pilot had right what we are perhaps getting wrong.
There is always discussion about how academics can engage more with a public audience (and whether they should), and part of what this Emerging Civil War blog is doing is trying to bring academic historians into conversation with the public about new research regarding the Civil War Era.
A blog is good for this kind of goal because it passes over the long drawn-out process of detailed peer review and allows historians to share their research and ideas with the public quickly and in a more informal tone. I have read quite a bit recently about scientists skipping peer review to publish directly with wider presses in order to get their message out sooner—especially on crucial topics such as climate change and drug use.
Historians need to consider when and how it is appropriate to act in similar manner. At my writing of this post, one historian in particular, Jim Downs of Connecticut College, has been very active in the media in light of the recent tragic shooting in the Orlando night club. His willingness to jump into the public spotlight and share his historical knowledge as it is relevant to current day events is a model for all of us. Historians are not necessarily interested or comfortable in writing op-eds, or perhaps we just do not know how to access those channels, but so many of us should be doing more of this. We are comfortable speaking in front of our students and we need to translate that into speaking to the wider public.
Academic historians are trained to research and write, with scant attention in graduate school focused on teaching methodologies or engaging with public audiences. The American Historical Association’s Tuning Project is working with the historical profession as a whole and its results will hopefully trickle down to the accessibility of academic work to wider audiences, especially as more Ph.D.s like myself are faced with challenging job markets that encourages us to consider professions outside of traditional academia.
So maybe this leads us back to being pilots for our cause. We need to think more broadly about how our knowledge of the Civil War can teach people about the world they live in today. At a recent plenary session of the Society for Civil War Historians biennial conference, historians spent well over an hour debating how to get the public interested in the Reconstruction narrative. Several ideas surfaced but one that struck a chord with me was that we need to do a better job of tying the Civil War and Reconstruction to current day race issues—so that Americans understand how tensions involving race in our country have evolved in this manner.
Civil War historians in the coming generations need to learn to teach outside of the classroom. We strive to be inspirational and engaging with our students but then that energy stops when we leave the building. There are so many more people to reach than those enrolled in our courses each semester. Let’s take a lesson from the pilot and find ways to pepper ordinary daily experiences with historical context and in that way become teachers to a broader American public. It may require advocating for the importance of what we have to say but in the end I believe it will be well worth it. We have an important story to tell and we cannot shy away from telling it.