Sunday, March 16, 2014

7 Questions With Joel Walker, Education Specialist, National Archives

(Mr. Joel Walker grew up in the Midwest and was an educator in Kansas and South Carolina before accepting his current position as Education Specialist at the National Archives at Atlanta, located in Morrow, Georgia.)

How and/or when did you get you hooked on history?
 There wasn't any certain moment that got me hooked on history.  It was just something that was a part of me growing up.  As an elementary-aged kid, my family made the forty-mile drive from Grand Island, Nebraska to Hastings, Nebraska about every year.  At the time, GI did not have a museum but Hastings had the "House of Yesterday."  It was the classic, old cluttered museum.  The Civil War era exhibit case always mesmerized me with its ragged blue sack coat.  This was before the Native American burial act was passed and off in a side room was a skeleton of a Pawnee displayed as if it had just been found in a recently discovered grave by some archeologist.  To this day, I prefer the cluttered museum to "clean" modern exhibit theory.  Later, when I was in my teens, I heard the Nebraska Poet Laureate, John Neihardt, recite from memory his account of the death of Crazy Horse.  A few weeks after hearing his recital, I was standing at the exact spot where Crazy Horse had been bayoneted at the guard house at Fort Robinson.  You can imagine how Neihardt's poetry still echoed in my mind as I stood on the spot of the deed.  These and other early historical experiences just resonated with me.  I never had an unfavorable opinion of the discipline of history from my earliest memories.

What role does history play or has it played in your personal life?

 History plays a role in almost every thought pattern I have.  I get frustrated when I hear the media cover some story as if nothing like it ever happened before when there are multiple related historical examples and the ideas and opinions of modern politicians, seem to me, to be just the extensions of past political narratives.  Harry Truman once said that the only new thing was some history he hadn't yet read about.  I think there is a lot of truth in that statement.  On another side of the question, I see a historical character in many of the people that I meet.  I remember sitting in a school program back in the school where I taught in western Kansas.  I was looking around at the parents in the audience.  They were mostly farmers and I couldn't help but see the descendants of the homesteaders, probably 4th or 5th generation descendants but it was like I was transported back to the 1880s.  I see a lot of the past in the people here in Georgia and South Carolina (where I used to work) as well.  The past is a big part of us and unresolved issues as well important achievements and milestones shape us and our offspring for years to come.

How is/How was history a part of your professional life/career?

I got a late start in the history profession and didn't start teaching until I was 31 and then I taught mostly science with only one class of American history.  I did that for ten years but in the summers starting after I finished my first year in the classroom, I served as a seasonal park ranger with the National Park Service at two Indian War forts: Fort Larned National Historic Site and Fort Union National Monument.  With this job, I did Living History as a private, eventually a corporal, in Company C of the US Infantry (a historic unit stationed at Fort Larned in the late 1860s).  I also got to do museum curatorial work as well as other duties with the NPS.  A crazy new principal at the middle school where I taught motivated me to go into public history full-time and I was hired as an education coordinator at the Kansas State Museum. I did about every job imaginable there: worked with the docents, ran the children's hands-on gallery, wrote exhibit scripts, ran the Kansas History Day program, and even wrote two books, etc.  After fours years of working my tail off and living on near starvation wages (as well as working a second and third job at times), I took a better paying job at the South Carolina state archives as the education director.  I mostly was the state coordinator of National History Day but supervised a staff of four that coordinated a state wide TAH grant.  Working with about 9,500 students each year plus judging at nationals I learned an amazing amount about a variety of historical topics.  To this day, working with NHD students and teachers brings me a ton of satisfaction.  I did get very tired though of coordinating regional and state contests which was the least favorite thing I did on that job.  I have been with the National Archives since early 2009.  My favorite thing about this job is exploring and showing off the records in our building. 

Why is it important to study history? 

The past is who we are.  I compare it to someone receiving psychological counseling.  Why does a person act a certain way? Probably something in their early childhood that traumatized them.  Maybe some family tradition helped build a solid foundation of confidence.  Our personal past helps create the person we become in later life so why wouldn't the historic past have the same effect on us as individuals, families, communities, societies?  For example, why is the modern South predominantly Republican when it was once predominantly Democrat?  1948, Strom Thurmond, the Dixiecrat Movement, so forth and so on.  We are our past and knowing our past and our past's relationship with others (I like to call it "our story" instead of "his story") is how the future is actually going to improve and get better.  Just like the person receiving counseling has to deal with the past to heal, we, on a variety of levels, have to do the same.

What is your favorite period or aspect of history to learn about or teach about and why?

I grew up loving western American history, especially the history of the Great Plains: the Native Americans, the French and the Spanish on the Plains, the overland routes, homesteaders, the dust bowl, etc. but up until I left Kansas and went to South Carolina, the history I loved always had a direct connection to me.  Moving to the South and learning a new regional history forced me to have a new appreciation for a history that wasn't my own.  I no longer have to have some personal connection to a history to find meaning in it.  I kind of like being an outsider to a history not so I can "judge" it but that I can see all the different sides of the story.  I don't "love" southern history like I do the history of the Great Plains but I find it fascinating.  People who never lived in the South over-simplify it but the historical narrative of the South is unbelievably complex as is its present.  As far as teaching the history of the South, I would feel very uncomfortable teaching it.  My favorite subject to teaching is the full narrative of American history.  When I taught American history to 8th graders, we began on the first day of class with the crossing of the ancient Asians across the Bering Strait and ended with the Clinton Administration on the last day (actually a couple of days before the final test).  I loved telling it as this long and on-going narrative which is what it is.

Why are the National Archives, and the work of archivists in general, important?

 The mission of the National Archives is to preserve and make accessible the records of the federal government. These records not only tell us who we are but help to keep us free. You just have to think about George Orwell's novel, 1984, to understand how original records and access to them can have an effect on our freedom.  It may not be exactly like Orwell's notion, but think of our society's lack of attention span and how the news is delivered to us, how politicians run their campaigns with small sound bites, how we seem to want everything simplified into a 3 minute news story.  The present is a complex story built and formed from events, thoughts, ideas, etc. from the past.  Any attempt to simplify this complexity is at best just dumbing it down, at worst, well, you can draw your own conclusions.  Having access to the original, historically-related records can put a whole new light on what is happening today. Obviously, it is easy to see this relationship with federal records, but state records are similar.  Want to have a more complete understanding of why South Carolina seceded from the Union in 1860? Read the Declarations of Immediate Cause in the South Carolina state archives that accompanied the Ordinance of Secession.  County, school, corporate archives have clues to what really happened.  The archivist has the responsibility to organize these records in ways that help the researcher to find the records - the answers - that they are looking for.

What should the general public know about the National Archives and the services it provides?

 Unfortunately much of the general public sees the National Archives as only a place to do family history.  One certainly can do genealogy at NARA but in reality, maybe 15% of the records in our building or in most NARA sites actually have a genealogical relationship.  Somebody once said that all history is family history.  I don't accept that definition.  If we only see history in relationship to our family history, then history never gets beyond an egocentric view.  To me, history is the understanding of all our stories.  It is, at its core, the very basis of meaning in our lives, the meaning of who we are as a country.  I guess what I would want the general public to know about the National Archives is that we may not have the complete story of this country within our walls but we have a very good representation of records that document the breath and depth of the American story.

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