Authority, Social Commentary, and Subjectivity

I was all over the place in this half of the book. I agreed with some and had qualms with some aspects of each of the sections. The following is a highlight reel of the most important takeaways for me in some semblance of themes…

The concept of power and authority is extremely interesting to me. It often raises ‘should’ questions and also becomes controversial in an almost hidden way. “Who should tell that story?” The controversy is hidden because it has become almost politically incorrect (or at least “uncool”) to not share authority. The problem often then lies in the execution as authority is grudgingly relinquished and the trust that should develop is immediately hindered. In “Peering Behind the Curtain”, Rachleff states, “Ideally, the boundaries between the commissioned work, the institutional voice, and the public become fluid in collaborative projects, and trust builds over time” (p. 221). Along the same lines, “the relations of power are transformed and a culture of cooperation, exchange, mutual respect, and urban vitality is developed” (Yalowitz with Stathis, p. 172). In both of these cases, the sharing of authority and power over the telling of history is key to the success of the projects.

These two pieces and the StoryCorps piece share an issue that caused a small epiphany for me. While there is merit in each as they tell untold stories and highlight crucial social issues, are they not what Bogan calls “‘hit-and-run’ social commentary”? (p. 223). These types of efforts often highlight an issue for the moment and may even bring about short-term change, but what about the long-term? I think this is what the “Why?” question from earlier in the book is really trying to address. Yes, we know it is important to tell all of history, but why? What do we hope to do in the long run by telling all of human history, not just the official line or the juicy bits? My epiphany came when I realized that similar ‘hit-and-run’ or ‘band-aid’ social efforts are the current solutions for problems in the US education system and true, long-term change is the ultimate loss.

The StoryCorps piece also brought to light a concept academics and especially historians are hung up on – objective and subjective. “Years of graduate work and peer review inculcate the value of being dispassionate. We are supposed to gather evidence, evaluate preponderances, and track patterns, all with an eye toward creating balanced interpretations, free of factual inaccuracies, that advance or overturn conclusions in the body of literature that precedes us.” (p. 181-182) I absolutely love that quotation. Here is my weekly book plug – you should all read The Courage to Teach by Parker Palmer. In it he addresses this issue and outlines two theories of learning – an object-centered theory and a subject-centered theory. In the first learners are vessels to be filled by the expert who is the only one who has contact with the object. In the latter the community of knowers is continuously learning and engaging with the subject and with other knowers. That is an extremely simplified version, but the idea of creating a community in which we all share our experiences is so inviting and I think academics sometimes live in their ivory towers too long and forget to look for the invitation.

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