Opinion: Daily Journal

On History, Revision & Overreaction

RALEIGH – You might consider calling it “CWF Smackdown.”

No, it isn’t yet another excursion into steroid-enhanced thespianism. Rather, it seems that a certain historical attraction a few hours up the road in Virginia is planning to liven things up next year with “street scuffles, public debates, and maybe even an occasional all-out brawl,” as one media account put it. I’m speaking of the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, which has of late been experiencing a significant downturn in tourism and sees a more rough-and-tumble depiction of colonial life in Virginia as the potential solution.

Longtime fans of the John Locke Foundation know that we have long enjoyed cordial and cooperative relations with the folks at Williamsburg. It is one of my favorite places (and is also a testament to the importance of entrepreneurial philanthropy as one of the favorite projects of the Rockefeller family). I wish the organization well, and have no problem with the idea of introducing new elements and stories into the experience.

But there are some larger points to be made about this. First, officials at Colonial Williamsburg and other historically oriented attractions say that attendance has been weakening in part because people don’t like to be lectured to on vacations, and that some would prefer more focus on slave and women and less focus on Founders such as Thomas Jefferson and George Washington.

I actually think that everyday economic and social life does often get short shrift in historical accounts and depictions, be they of colonial America, medieval France, imperial Rome, or ancient Sumer. Although I’m cuckoo over military matters, there is a bias in formal history in favor of politicians and generals, coups and conquests. In theory, then, I think that attractions such as Colonial Williamsburg – which, let’s face it, is already largely about village goings-on rather than constitutional debate – should seek to make history relevant to children and adults.

The problem is that what seems to be going on here is not so much relevance as revisionism. Founders such as Jefferson and Washington were critically important individuals. They helped birth the greatest and freest country on Earth. Certainly we should learn more than their stories – but we should learn them.

The second point is more straightforward: school administrators, educators, and some parents have overreacted wildly to the attacks of September 11. According to the media reports, attendance at Williamsburg and other venues really took a nose dive after schools, fearful of terrorist incidents, began pulling back from long-distance trips, particularly those in the rough vicinity of the nation’s capital.

This is bad risk analysis – terrorism is scary but far less likely to harm students than a bus ride through their hometown – and worse education policy. If students ever wonder why America is fighting the Islamofascist terrorists, both at home and overseas, a visit to Williamsburg, Monticello, Washington, or Gettysburg would be most instructive. The thugs fight against a society that values individual liberty, human dignity, and equality before the law. We fight to preserve and restore such a society, as our Founders did before us.

By all means, let’s see a little scuffling around Williamsburg. But I hope it’s done for the right reasons.

Hood is president of the John Locke Foundation.