This week we kicked off discussion by watching Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Performance of “Alexander Hamilton” at the White House in 2009 (click the link above for it). Since then, the musical Alexander Hamilton has been hugely popular in New York and now become a Broadway hit. See:
The clip was an appropriate starting point for a discussion about “What is History?,” “What is History for?”, “Who Does History?”, and “What is the role and responsibility of the historian in public history?.”
Our readings ranged from EH Carr’s classic essay “What is History” to M. Scott Momaday’s Way to Rainy Mountain, the former seemingly caught between the positivists of the 19th century and the postmodernists of the 20th, and the latter making an argument for history as a “turning and re-turning of myth, history, and memoir.” Momaday’s definition was arguably given some extra weight by an excerpt from Raphael Samuel’s 1994 book, Theatres of Memory, called “Unofficial Knowledge” in which Samuel pointed out the myriad ways we learn, and do, history (and in the process outlining an agenda for a new generation of cultural historians). We finished off with a discussion of an excerpt from Roy Rosensweig and David Thelen’s landmark study The Presence of the Past, with students pointing out that even since 1998, when they published this work, we seem to know a lot more about how non-historians think about the past and do history in their everyday lives.
We finished our seminar with a short discussion of just how to get started on a community-engaged project, emphasising that the engagement should come first, and let the historical questions arise from it. Several students shared their ideas about the kind of local/community organisation they might like to work with, and there were some terrific ideas. Very promising…
While we only managed to scratch the surface of the questions raised this week, they will of course be at the heart of this unit throughout the semester.