Ethically Challenged

This week’s readings on ethical dilemmas and the use of history for political purposes raise many interesting questions that are plaguing the profession right now. History is always going to be distorted, by one side or the other. The main issue is at what point should a public historian engage and attempt to “right the wrongs”?

The exchange that Larry Cebula shared on his website provides a good example. Had the only problem on the tour been the 5 myths he brought up: fireplace screens; colonial height; closets; hands in portraits and pineapples – would it have been worth the time to try and correct it? Is that what public historians need to do… ensure that every anecdote shared is historically accurate? Obviously, the main issue that Cebula raises – slavery – needs to be corrected whenever it is so blatantly ignored but are the smaller facts worth our time?

The Sons of Confederate Veterans have the right, as much as we wish they didn’t, to commemorate the Civil War in the manner they choose. Someone teaching a class on the Constitution outside of a publicly funded institution can highlight whatever aspects of the Founders and their lives that he or she wants to. For all of the examples of bad history that are presented, it seems as though they are filling a need. If there is nothing there to present the correct version of history, then the vacuum will be filled by whatever is left. I don’t feel it is our job as public historians to follow those other groups and correct them. I think it is our responsibility to ensure that the actual history is readily accessible, understandable and relatable. If you fill the void then the noise will fall away.

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