April 29, 1917 – National Board for Historical Service Resolutions Adopted

Shortly after the U.S. entered World War I, on this day in history, a group of eminent historians formulated a list of resolutions on how best to “aid in supplying the public with trustworthy information of historical or similar character . . .”

The express aim of the conference was to discuss measures historians might take to help encourage “patriotic good will.” (American Historical Association, Annual Report, 1919, I, 161)

To that end, they resolved, first, “that there be formed a National Board for Historical Service.” This Board would aid in helping to shape collective memory by preparing recommended reading lists, the distribution of historical materials, and “through the giving of lectures and of systematic instruction, and in other ways.”

Wake Up, America! Civilization Calls Every Man Woman and Child!, 1917, James Montgomery Flagg (The Huntington Library, Art Galleries, and Botanical Gardens)

Wake Up, America! Civilization Calls Every Man Woman and Child!, 1917, James Montgomery Flagg (The Huntington Library, Art Galleries, and Botanical Gardens)

The signatories to this resolution believed that the style and content of historical representation should not be left to chance, since social memorials make a claim in the contested terrain of national identity, and that the “lessons” of the past help justify present policies.

Thus, as Yael Zerubavel wrote about historical representation, “[c]ollective memory . . . continuously negotiates between available historical records and current social and political agendas.” (Yael Zerubavel, “The Death of Memory and the Memory of Death,” Representations, Winter 1994, at 72.)

More specifically, the determination of what is to be removed from public discourse and what is to be considered significant is linked to power relations in society. Because not all societal groups have equal access to the mechanisms that generate cultural consciousness, some memories and forms of remembrance become more dominant than others, and thus get defined as more legitimate in representing the truth.

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In a letter of May 13, 1917, the Board wrote to over two hundred scholars and teachers:

“At no time in our history has the historian been so obviously called to the immediate service of the Nation. . . .

It seems clear to us that the local press affords an important medium through which the historian may render a most useful service. By making the acquaintance of editors and reporters, by watching the columns of the local newspapers for statements that in the interest of truth should be controverted, by offering editorial material, by writing communications or special articles of historical character pertinent to immediate questions, and by furnishing the correct historical background for many items of current news, the historian may exercise a salutary influence in his community.”

(Ibid., 171-172.)

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But even more important, in the eyes of the Board, was the educational system. Letters containing information and suggestions were sent to school and educational authorities in all parts of the country through the United States Bureau of Education, as was a pamphlet entitled “Opportunities for History Teachers: the Lessons of the Great War in the Classroom.” (“Historians and Archivists in the First World War,” The American Archivist, January, 1942, online here.)

Similarly, in the present time, strong efforts have been made around the U.S. to have more input into the content of history textbooks. On November 18, 2015, for example, the Texas State Board of Education voted 8-7 against a plan to create a group of state university professors to review Texas schoolchildren’s textbooks for factual errors. As the Dallas News reported:

The push for more experts to be involved came after more than a year of controversy over board-sanctioned books’ coverage of global warming, descriptions of Islamic history and terrorism and handling of the Civil War and the importance of Moses and the Ten Commandments to the founding fathers.”

Source:  Tea Party Tribune

Source: Tea Party Tribune

Because Texas is one of the largest textbook purchasers in the nation, decisions it makes on content strongly influences books marketed in other states. Critics charge that the elected board members have politicized selection of textbook content.

How does is process affected by social media? Today, social media acts to bring memes to the public consciousness and set the agenda of social and political discussion. It poses a new and powerful form of competition for writers of the historical record.

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