Publication Date

May 1, 2000

Editor's Note. The following very briefly summarizes the results of a survey that is the basis of The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life(New York: Columbia University Press, 1998) by and David Thelen; in a separate piece, Thelen offers his reflections on the significance of the results. Further details are available in the book and online at http:/

History professionals—like most professionals—tend to emphasize the differences between themselves and others. Those who "do" history for a living often feel that nonprofessionals have little interest in or knowledge of their work. About a decade ago a distinguished president of this organization spoke for many when he deplored the "present public ignorance of our cultural heritage." "This ignorance and indifference," he argued, "has alarming implications for the future of our nation and our historical profession."

Despite this often-expressed anxiety about an ignorant and indifferent public, we have had astonishingly little investigation of what Americans do know and think about the past. In 1994 (with support from NEH and the Spencer Foundation) Dave Thelen and I set out to investigate the seemingly simple but largely unstudied question of how Americans use and understand the past. We undertook a telephone survey of 808 Americans, a representative crosssection of the nation, as well as three additional samples of African Americans, Mexican Americans, and Sioux Indians, about 200 people in each group.

Although we asked a number of closed-ended questions, we confined those questions to about 10 minutes of interviews that lasted an average of 40 minutes. Thus, the results are embodied not only in four thick volumes of tables but even more in 850,000 words of transcribed phone conversations.

Table 1: Percentage of Americans Who Did the Following during a 12-Month Period
Looked at photographs with family or friends 91.1
Taken any photographs or videos to preserve memories 83.3
Watched any movies or television programs about the past 81.3
Attended a family reunion or a reunion of some other group of people with whom they shared a common experience 64.2
Visited any history museums or historic sites 57.2
Read any books about the past 53.2
Participated in any hobbies or worked on any collections related to the past 39.6
Looked into the history of their family or worked on the family tree 35.8
Written in a journal or diary 29.3
Taken part in a group devoted to studying, preserving, or presenting the past 20.2

What did we find? Contrary to the conventional wisdom, our survey documents the widespread nature of American engagement with the past. When we asked which of a list of 10 activities people had pursued in the past year, we found, for example, that more than four-fifths had taken photos to preserve memories, that almost three-fifths had visited a history museum or historic site, and that almost two-fifths had worked on hobbies related to the past, looked into their family history, or worked on their family tree. More than half of the people in the national sample had pursued at least 5 of the activities on our 10-item checklist in the past year; almost no one reported that they did none of the 10 activities (see Table 1)

To get a sense of where "popular historymakers," as we called them in the book, felt most involved with the past, we used a conventional 10-point scale that asked respondents to report in which settings they felt "most connected" to the past (see Table 2). If we decide that a score of 8 on a 10-point scale indicates that people felt very strongly connected to the past, then in three different settings that we asked about—holidays, family gatherings, and museums—a majority of Americans feel a powerful sense of connection with the past.

Although our data suggest an almost ubiquitous sense of connectedness with the past, it also shows that it was the familial and intimate past that mattered most—a finding that pervaded both the quantitative and qualitative answers gathered in the survey. The activity that made people feel most connected with the past was "gathering with your family," and the other activities that made them feel connected with the past were those that usually included family members—visiting museums and historic sites and celebrating holidays. Only 16 people in the entire national sample gave gathering with their family the lowest possible connectedness score of a "1".

A 32-year-old physical therapist was typical in saying that all family events evoked the past: "Because when you gather with your family, everyone has stories about the way things used to be. It's always story time. We don't gather for that particular purpose, but we always end up telling stories . . . about what life was like when [we] were kids."

Respondents felt most connected to the past when they encountered it with the people who mattered the most to them, and they often pursued the past in ways that drew in family and friends. Five-sixths of those surveyed took pictures to preserve memories of their experiences; more than nine-tenths looked at photographs with family and friends; more than one-third worked on their family trees or investigated the history of their families; almost two-thirds attended reunions—three-quarters of them family reunions. More than half of the respondents who pursued hobbies or collections related to the past said that family members had initially interested them in that hobby or that the hobby preserved a family tradition. Typically, a 25-year-old student from Massachusetts described refinishing a small chest and dollhouse from her grandmother that she wants "to pass down as an heirloom . . . if I have a daughter someday."

Table 2: Connection to the Past

Survey participants were asked to indicate, on a scale of 1–10 how connected to the past they felt

    Percent Choosing
  Mean 8-10 1-3
Gathering with the family 7.9 67.7 6.7
Visiting a history museum or historic site 7.3 56.0 8.6
Celebrating a holiday 7.0 52.7 13.8
Watching a movie or TV program about the past 6.0 27.4 14.0
Studying history in school 5.7 27.8 20.8

The most straightforward demonstration of the significance of the intimate past for most Americans was in the answers that our interviewees gave to the question about which area of the past was most important. Asked whether the past that was most important to them was the past of their family, their ethnic group, their community, or the United States, two-thirds named the past of their family, followed by 22 percent who named the United States, 7.6 percent who chose the past of their racial or ethnic group, and 3.9 percent who chose their community.

Harder to quantify but still evident in the answers offered are the "uses" that Americans make of the past. Most fundamentally, Americans make what could be called "intimate" uses of the past; they turn to the past to live their lives in the present. Through the past, they find ways to understand and build relationships to those close to them and to answer basic questions about identity, morality, mortality, and agency. Individuals turn to their past experiences to grapple with questions about where they come from and where they are heading, who they are and how they want to be remembered, and whether and how they can make a difference in the world. A young woman from Ohio speaks of giving birth to her first child, which caused her to reflect upon her parents and the ways that their example would help her to become a good mother. An African American from Georgia tells how he and his wife were drawn to each other by their shared experiences and lessons learned from growing up in the South in the 1950s. A Massachusetts woman traces much of her guarded attitude toward life to seeing the assassination of John F. Kennedy on television when she was a child.

Interestingly, many of these patterns cut across standard sociodemographic lines like age, education, income, gender, and race that often divide people. The question that showed the most substantial demographic variation was the one that asked which area of the past people thought was most important. (See Table 3.) Seventy-three percent of the women, for example, selected family history, compared to 58 percent of the men. An even larger difference emerged along racial lines. Black Americans were more than 6 times as likely as whites to choose the history of their ethnic or racial group as most important to them while Oglala Sioux Indians from Pine Ridge Reservation were almost 10 times as likely to make the same choice.

Table 3: Most Important Pasts

Respondents were asked: "Knowing about the past: which of the following is most important to you—the past of your family, the past of your racial or ethnic group, the past of the community in which you now live, or the past of the United States

Group White National African American Mexican American Oglala Sioux
——– —– —– —– —– —–
Family 69 66 59 61 50
Race/Ethnic 4 7 26 10 38
Locality 3 4 4 7 7
United States 23 22 11 22 5

Whereas when most white Americans talked about "we" or "our" they referred to their own family, African Americans meant, as one interviewee put it, "our race, our people." Similarly, Sioux Indians talked regularly about "our history," "our heritage," "our culture," "our tribe," "our language," and "our traditions"—phrases that would be hard to find in the interviews with white Americans. Explaining her family's participation in the Wounded Knee Pine Ridge Survivors Association, one woman commented: "That is our identity, part of our culture. . . . If we lose our culture then we cease to be Indians." For the Oglala Sioux, a strong sense of group identity both drew upon and reinforced a distinctive sense of the past—a shared set of historical references to particular events, places, and people that they repeatedly invoked and used, albeit not always in the same ways.

African Americans also constructed distinctive historical narratives and talked about unique holidays and historical sites and sources. But what was most remarkable was not the obvious racial cast to these responses, but the structure of the larger narrative. To a startling degree, black Americans constructed a story of progress when they looked at the past—a rather traditional story that was hard to find among white Americans. Black respondents most often found a story of progress in the civil rights struggle. For example, a Detroit woman spoke about "freedom" and then defined it by saying, "Thank God we're able to drink from the same fountains as other races, we're able to vote, and we're able to go places." When they named public events that had affected them, about one-third of the African American respondents talked about change for the better or worse, and of that third, almost three-quarters described change for the better. By contrast, more than four-fifths of white respondents described change for the worse.

This tendency of African Americans and Sioux Indians to construct collective narratives about the past and to use materials from those collective narratives to understand their lives in the present is much less evident among most white Americans. To be sure, there are times and places where white Americans draw upon narratives about the past of particular communities, regions, or ethnic groups. And all Americans make use of our national history at times. Yet whereas the 624 white American respondents made profound use of the intimate pasts of their families, they did not use other narratives (national, class, or ethnic, for example) and historical materials in the same deep ways. For most white Americans, the "usable past" was largely the story of their own families. Or when they used bits and pieces of the national past, they did so in intimate ways that privatized the public past and used it to answer more personal questions about identity, morality, or mortality.

Equally significant, they did not offer many of the conventional, textbook narratives of linear progress that are often associated with capital "H" history. Ironically, it is particularly among Sioux Indians and African Americans that American history as a progressive narrative is kept alive, albeit not in its most easily recognizable forms. They offer something much more like a national narrative—but with a bitter twist. In this counternarrative, the arrival of Columbus, westward movement, slavery, the confinement of Native Americans to reservations, and Jim Crow add up to an American history in which blacks and Native Americans have been oppressed and betrayed by whites, who then depict their actions in movies and textbooks that lie about Native Americans and exclude African Americans. A 37-year-old Pine Ridge Sioux Indian summarized this perspective when he described his own sense of the past as "pretty much opposite" that of "most of the Americans." "Well," he pointed out, "when they were fighting the Civil War, we were fighting the Cavalry and when they were homesteading the West, we were stuck on the reservations. . . . Whereas they gained their freedom, we lost ours."

We titled our book The Presence of the Past to emphasize that the stories of the 1,453 individual Americans we talked with, and the statistical summaries of their responses, impressed us with the presence of the past—its ubiquity and its connection to current-day concerns—rather than its frequently bemoaned absence. Yet, it is also important to acknowledge that our respondents did not necessarily view the past in the same ways as professional historians. Conventional nationalist narratives, for example, had much less of a hold on popular historymakers than they have had on the historical profession. These and other differences can be profound and sometimes even troubling, but it is time that we devote as much attention to what connects us to our audiences—a shared passion for the past—as well as what separates us. The past is very much present for all of us whether we “do” history for a living—or as part of living.

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