Read a famous essay by Barry O’Connell, history professor at Amherst College: “Who Owns History and How Do We Decide?” In it he raises many useful questions about the nature of history, questions that I hope will lead you to question more critically history as a discipline, its supposed objectivity, and what it means to do “good” history. The link to the essay is below.
As you read the essay, please answer the following questions:
- Who is George Sheldon and why is he mentioned in O’Connell’s essay?
- Why is something as seemingly “simple and innocent” as the founding of a memorial association not so simple or innocent for O’Connell? Explain. Do you agree with this claim? Why or why not?
- Can history still be useful, according to O’Connell, if ‘interested’ and biased historians write history? If so, how?
- According to O’Connell, what is the substance of historical inquiry? Do you agree? Why or why not?
- O’Connell ends his essay triumphantly by writing that “It is our task, as students and teachers…to bring everyone and everything out of the mist so we might hear their voices, follow their actions, and respect each person, past and preset, as a maker as well as a subject of history.” Can you think of any recent treatment of history that does precisely what O’Connell describes? If so, discuss it. If not, what does this tell you about the feasibility of creating the type of history that the author describes?