Sunday, January 27, 2008

CSPAN or American Idol?

The famous philosopher Soren Kierkegaard once noted, “Life can only be understood backwards; but it must be lived forwards.” In 12 short words he manages to make a compelling argument for the importance of what historians refer to as “The usable past.” But Kierkegaard is also known for making the equally true observation that “Anxiety is the dizziness of freedom.” These two quotes sum up quite well the dichotomous challenges historians face in presenting their work in the information age.

On the one hand there has never been a greater need for our lords temporal and lords spiritual to learn from the past. There is truly “nothing new under the sun” (1) and while every present day situation is in some respects unique, there are also myriad challenges and problems that have always been with us. We live in an age when there are hundreds of ways to impart the usable past to those who need it most. At the same time, in order to stay relevant historians must find a way to make people pay attention to their work, while at the same time remaining relevant and credible.

In short, historians in dealing with the web must face what I like to call the CSPAN/American Idol dichotomy. Bill Haley the leader of one of America’s first rock and roll bands was once asked how he could he stoop so low as to play trashy “ jungle music.” Haley told them, “I have a wife and 5 five children to support... I scuffed for ten years for a break and now I finally got it and I am not about to let it go.” (2).

Haley was a rock musician but many historians face the same dilemma. Do they take the CSPAN route and play up the academic/ research end of their work? Or is it better to go Hollywood in an effort to make sure their message gets out? In short, what is the proper mix between popularity and credibility? Is the purpose of history to educate or entertain? Is it even possible in this day and time to educate anyone without entertaining them first?

The answers to the aforementioned questions are many and varied. Websites such as “The Valley Project” which covers the history of two towns (one northern, one southern) in the Shenandoah Valley from the time of the John Brown Raid through Reconstruction seek credibility through the compiling of information. The site is a cornucopia of images, statistics, battle maps, census records and diaries. Like many sites, it tries to be serious and interesting at the same time. Still one has to ask, what the average person (whatever that is) think of the site? If they happened upon it would there be enough to draw them in or is previous knowledge a requirement for success?

Like “ The Valley Project the “ Do History “ website provides a tutorial on the many aspects of what should go into researching and creating a serious academic history project. Again, the site focuses on the elements required to produce credible historical evidence and conclusions that have the capacity to gain the imprimatur of the academic world.

At the other end of the spectrum are sites like the History Channel that tend toward the “American Idol” side of the equation. The site is littered with adds and deals with a range of topics, some historical, some not, that range from “When bridges collapse to “Bhutto’s legacy.” The argument of course is that due to the design, “Joe six pack” is more likely to take some time to look at the website of Tony Soprano’s favorite cable channel.

Finally, there is the “attic approach” as seen on the site of the Museum of American History. On the museum homepage one can view a wide range of eclectic historical artifacts that range from Kermit the frog, to a WWII era “Steel pot” helmet to Dorothy’s ruby slippers. The message seems to be “Go on up to the attic and look around, maybe you might learn something.”

At the end of the day, the question remains the same one asked by Bill Haley. “What good is being a serious musician if no one ever listens to your music?” As noted, we live in a time where people everywhere need accurate credible historical information to help them solve the challenges of the present day. The first trick is to get them to pay attention; the second is to be able to achieve the first goal while still maintaining your credibility.

  1. (Ecclesiastes 1:9-14 NIV)
  2. Nik, Cohn, ( Rock Dreams, Popular Library, New York,1973)p. 13

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