A Test for Poor Richard?

[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.

But my real objection is closer to what a few local columnists have written about.

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.

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4 Responses to A Test for Poor Richard?

  1. bcbagley says:

    Two things. First: what are the details of the council proposal. Will it actually prevent those guides who could actually be licensed from telling the kinds of charming popular stories you’re interested in? Are they doing anything to restrict qualified people from exercising their own judgment about what to say? If they’re not, I have a hard time seeing how these stories are going to be seriously threatened.

    Second: aren’t the authors of the articles you link to being a little disingenuous? When the author of the Inquirer piece takes his big libertarian stand at the end, he aserts the “simple principle” that “People have the right to speak freely and to earn their living by speaking, without first having to ask the government’s permission.” But of course it’s not that simple! I can’t earn my living by running an advertising firm that tells you that toothpaste puts hair on your chest; I can’t get paid as a teacher in any significant capacity without being accredited. There are really good reasons why we regulate speech like that–certain kinds of speech are valuable only on the presupposition that the speaker has some grasp on and concern for the truth, such that we–both as consumers of such speech and as members of a society in which that speech is propogated–have a big interest in trying to make sure that presupposition is satisfied. Sometimes–as with mainstream media–the market does this at least passably well, but sometimes it might not.

    There are good reasons to think that tour guide discourse is such that (a) we have an interest in its truth, or its approximation of truth; and (b) the market won’t secure that interest by itself. The reason for (b) is that customers aren’t in a position to evaluate tour guides by repuation. Relative quality of tour guide companies–much less individual tour guides!–is nowhere close to public knowledge, and even if it were, most customers (who are, after all, tourists and thus unfamiliar with the city) would be in no position to have access to it.

    As for (a), part of the reason is just quality control: if I pay for your services as a tour guide, all things being equal I’m NOT just presuming that you’ll entertain me–but that you have a knowledge of the area at hand that will be interesting and edifying. If you don’t have anything resembling knowledge of that sort, I’m not getting what I’m paying for–and a licensing system just seems like a step in the right direction for making my transactions more reliable. But the much more important reason, I suspect, is one of the most important lessons I took from my history classes in high school and college–that “fabulisms and retellings” are nowhere close to innocent. They can, and frequently do, centrally transmit narratives with ideological underpinnings that serve the interests of some of the ugliest and most oppressive units of society. Isn’t this kind of exchange that is particularly apt to transmit rumors analogous to things like “Obama’s a Muslim,” or “flatter taxes will save most people money,” or “the Freemasons are secretly a subversive Satanic cult?”

    I mean, basically, what tour guides say *matters*, and it’s hard to see how ensuring that they have some basic qualification wouldn’t be a step in the right direction.

  2. bcbagley says:

    One other question: when you say you “trust in the tumultuous processes by which stories about the past come into being,” what do you trust them to do? Do you trust them to track the truth? To entertain? To build community? (If so, what sort of community, and among whom?) To advance social justice? If not that, what?

  3. hestal says:

    I have been working on a project that looks at U.S. history since the Constitution was ratified, and it appears that history has most often been just plain wrong. I am talking about the history taught in all our schools, praised by all levels of government officials, and portrayed in popular media from books to movies to television dramas.

    The superiority of the white race, and the special culture of the South including her “heroic” struggle against overwhelming northern might, have long been accepted as fact by historians and the general public — including the reasons for going to civil war, the nature of reconstruction, the bloody outburst that was “redemption,” the creation of Jim Crow as a natural separation of the races, and the revival of state-sponsored slavery that existed with the tacit approval of the U.S. government until Pearl Harbor as the only way to deal with the black underclass, have all been the order of the decades.

    A recent spate of books: “Causes Won, Lost & Forgotten,” by Gary W. Gallagher, “Race and Reunion,” by David W. Blight, “A Matter of Justice,” by David A. Nichols, “The Age of Lincoln,” by Orville Vernon Burton, “Redemption,” by Nicholas Lemann, “Slavery by Another Name,” by Douglas A. Blackmon, “What Caused the Civil War,” by Edward L. Ayers, “The Slave Power,” by Leonard L. Richards, “The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History,” edited by Gallagher and Alan T. Nolan, and “Opportunity Time,” by Linwood Holton, are the ones I have chosen to read out of a group at least three times as large, all of which are recent revisions to a history that was actually a gross revision of the facts.

    So where were historians during this 118-year period? Which is the truth, the one I was taught in school and the one I saw when my mother took me to see “Gone With the Wind,” or the one these authors are telling? How can I tell, and why must I devote so much time and expense to trying to learn the truth?

    How can the public ever learn the truth? How many generations will it take? Is it even possible?

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    BC, sorry to be slow to reply.

    You’re right that the proposed licensing doesn’t really exercise prior restraint over what a guide might say while guiding as long as he or she can pass the test, at least as far as I understand it. So the guide can pass the test and then turn right around and tell people that George Washington and Betsy Ross had a torrid love affair or that Ben Franklin had seventy sons without any more consequences than they face now.

    I don’t quite go as far as the libertarian lawyer in his commentary, but I do think there are differences between individual or small-scale tour operators in Philadelphia and the examples you cite. The state regulates teaching because the state operates schools. Advertising claims are regulated far more lightly by government than most of the public suspects, and generally only around narrowly construed claims of published fact. In both cases, the state has a strong view of the public harm that comes from a failure to regulate. Right now, on the other hand, there are people who run narrowly topical tours in Philadelphia almost as a hobby. It seems to me that even before we get to the complicated questions about the production of history and memory that it’s a categorical mistake for the state to try and regulate this kind of small-scale activity. I also think that if you look at the regulatory infrastructure around teacher accreditation, that should be sufficient warning about the possible negative consequences of this kind of intervention.

    The deeper question is, what’s the harm of tour guides telling people that Betsy Ross was a tramp or that Alexander Hamilton was gay? Certainly not a harm that justifies the expense and risk of setting up a regulatory structure–this is not surgery or 9-month education or a defective major durable commodity that can injure or kill.

    This is where I get to my sense of “trust” in popular consciousness. It’s not that I trust the public to get it right or know the truth, as Hestal asks. I trust in the fecundity and variety of popular consciousness about history, and in the density and complexity of interactions between memory and historical knowledge. Here I’m taking the position that Rafael Samuel, Michel-Rolph Trouillot, David William Cohen and other scholars have staked out, that to set historians against the public in the role of corrective superego is a big mistake for a variety of reasons. It’s not only that it’s a no-win game, but it leads us to miss both how interesting popular consciousness about history is as a subject and how it contains multitudes, most certainly including forces that push back on fables, tall tales and errors.

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