[cross-posted at Cliopatria]
For the past year, there’s been discussion of creating a licensing system for tour guides in the historic district of Philadephia. Now the city has taken that step. Starting this fall, authorized tour guides will need to pass a test confirming their command over historical accuracy.
There has already been the standard objection that this test is an unnecessary bureaucratic or regulatory burden. I’m somewhat sympathetic to that argument, not the least because I wonder what kind of test is likely to come out of Philadelphia’s municipal bureaucracy, and about how such a test is likely to acquire all sorts of encrustations and excesses over time.
I teach a class called “The Production of History” where I try to focus on the way the past is known, debated, contested and reimagined in public life, the way that historical knowledge circulates in everyday contexts. It’s tremendously difficult to get many of my students to progress past the point where they view popular or common conceptions and representations of history as errors in need of official or scholarly correction, where they start to see that how the past is known and imagined, told and retold, is something to understand and think about, not simply correct or repair.
So the problem with the proposed regulation in Philadelphia is not just the question of what kind of standard the city will end up establishing. It is also that the city is going to try to regulate fabulisms and retellings out of existence, to be a positivist nanny. I trust in the tumultuous processes by which stories about the past come into being, and through which stories about the past are evaluated by audiences (including tourists). Sure, I don’t expect that the patter of your average tour guide in Philadelphia would pass peer review for publication in The Journal of American History, but that’s not what we ask of stories told and retold in a horse-drawn buggy bumping over the cobbled streets around Independence Hall.