I’m Just Back From Springfield, IL — Which Leads to Many Thoughts of the Old and the New
The town is, of course, intensely aware of the upcoming bicentennial birthday, a date which has all the more resonance because the President began his campaign in Springfield, announced his VP choice there, and is returning on the 12th. Obama has very deliberately created that echo of old and new, which adds a new layer of resonance to the place. But visiting Springfield led me to think more generally about history, the past, how we teach it, how we present it to young people. Historical sites has paid so much attention to how they present and narrate information that they have become walking books — you experience each physical place almost as another illustration, another page. And that must have some implication for how we create out books.
Readers of this blog may recall that I was similarly effected by going to Valley Forge and Williamsburg. I feel that the sites should no longer just be listed in the backmatter, along with web addresses and further reader. There is is some way in which the physical experience of going to a place, exploring it, seeing real objects, getting a taste of a particular past as lived experience, should be a part of how we think of books on those subjects. I know there have been photo essays with reenactors showing life in, say, Plymouth Plantation. But I don’t mean that. It is more that I think that, say, a biography of Lincoln might devote a couple of spreads to going to Springfield. Sure not all kids can, and for those who can’t there will be photos and links to websites. But for kids who grow up with computer generated cartoons — which look three-dimensional, who play video games, which characters and settings designed to seem "real," I suspect that the past is not just idea, or artifact, or story — but also experience. And that is what these historical sites offer, the past as experience.
I am most grateful to the National Parks Service for bringing me to Springfield, I can’t wait to go back with my kids. Here’s a brief article about one of my talks: www.sj-r.com/homepage/x1851001568/Speakers-challenge-students-ideas-on-race