I just attended a fascinating session on "Historical Truths and Reconciliation: The Interpretation of African American and Enslaved Peoples." The participants debated and complicated traditional assumptions about how to address slavery and race within a public setting--whether that setting is a classroom, a historic site, or a museum. Many in the audience reminded us that children are often very receptive to discussing the legacy of slavery and segregation in American history--in a way that older generations (who are perhaps more painfully connected to this history) may not be.
In turn, their discussion reminded me of James Stewart's excellent keynote address, in which he positioned the millennial generation as the torchbearers of the 19th century abolitionist movement. As I listened, however, I thought of the American history survey course I teach at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point. I am continually surprised by the number of papers I receive that say something to the effect of, "now that Obama is president, this proves that equality has been achieved." Or, "We shouldn't dwell on these problems because I'm not responsible for what happened in the past." This--despite my constant classroom emphasis on the fact that the struggle for civil rights has not yet ended!
I agree that children and the millennial generation may indeed prove to be surprisingly receptive activists who will transform history classrooms and public history sites with their reinterpretations of slavery, segregation, and race. Yet I am perplexed as to how to address the almost willful refusal or apathy many (but,of course, not all!) of my college students have with regard to these subjects. As I prepare to teach American history and public history in the mountains of North Carolina in the fall, how can I help as many college students as possible make the transition from indifference to engaged activism? And is this my responsibility as a public historian?