Lumen Scholar finds National Parks oversimplify U.S. history

Work by Cameron Shirley '13 documented sites in Boston & Philadelphia that give visitors incomplete stories of the American Revolution.


by Caitlin O’Donnell ’13

The next time you visit a U.S. National Park historical site, you shouldn’t necessarily expect an unbiased take on our nation’s early history.

Through undergraduate research into park locations with ties to the American Revolution, Cameron Shirley ’13 concluded that the interpretations presented at many sites – both public and private – tend to give oversimplified, often-sanitized accounts that she argues are a disservice to visitors who may already be limited in their historical knowledge.

Her scholarship is the latest to be featured this year in an ongoing series of E-net profiles on Lumen Scholars in the Class of 2013. With Professor Jim Bissett as her project mentor, Shirley traveled to sites in Boston and Philadelphia to compare scholarly interpretations of the Revolution with those given there.

Some of the sites visited included the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, and the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, and Fanueil Hall and the Bunker Hill Monument Museum in Boston.

“Only one out of six Americans take a United States history course after high school, so a lot of history that people get in their adult years is from these historic sites,” Shirley said. “The goal was to see if they’re getting the same type of history we’re receiving in college.”

As it turns out, they’re typically not. Though scholars have penned updated, well-rounded interpretations of the American Revolution, the majority of historic sites Shirley visited rely on dated interpretations that have been superseded by academic historians. These explanations often simplify a complex social and political conflict into celebratory narratives focusing on the elite, white males in society.

“[It] is depicting the external struggle between colonists as a whole and Great Britain, but not presenting the whole, internal social or class or racial struggles that is a major part of the new social history movement,” Shirley said.

The main cause beneath the discrepancy typically lies with the funding historical sites receive. Many of the sites she visited were part of the National Park Service, which receives money from the government. Portraying the more negative aspects of the Founding Fathers is not one of its priorities.

“I think that’s a harder story to tell,” she said. “It’s easy to talk about how great George Washington was and all the great things he did, but talking about how he owned slaves and Thomas Jefferson owned slaves – those are much more touchy subjects that I think curators don’t often explore deep enough.”

While a significant number of historic sites present an oversimplified version of the Revolution, several do dig deeper and portray a more complete interpretation, Shirley said. The President’s House site in Philadelphia successfully grapples with George Washington in his role as slave owner while holding office as president. Old South Meeting House, a privately owned and operated site in Boston, looks beyond elite white males to include the contributions of ordinary men and women to the revolutionary cause.

The Lumen Prize, awarded for the first time in 2008, provides selected students with a $15,000 scholarship to support and celebrate their academic and creative achievements. Lumen scholars work closely with faculty mentors to pursue and complete their projects.

Efforts include course work, study abroad, research both on campus and abroad as well as during the regular academic year and summers, internships locally and abroad, program development and creative productions and performances.

Bissett described Shirley’s project as a significant analysis of public history in the United States.

“The Lumen experience has given Cameron and me the opportunity to develop a working relationship that is more intensive and that has extended over a longer period of time than is normally the case in undergraduate education,” Bissett said. “I’m continually impressed by Cameron’s intellect and work ethic. I have genuinely enjoyed our collaboration.”

The process of working closely with a research mentor has been one of the highlights of the Lumen Prize for Shirley. She said she appreciated being treated as a peer conducting original research.

“I see that my experience as an education student and experience through the Lumen Prize can be combined with the eventual goal of getting a doctorate and teaching at the university level, combining both of my passions,” Shirley said. “The Lumen Prize has helped me discover this other passion that I didn’t really even know existed.”

The Apex, N.C., native and Teaching Fellow is also involved with the Methodist Fellowship and works with the Elon Academy. When Shirley applied for the prize on a whim, she did not expect her life to take on an entirely new direction.

The history education major arrived at Elon thinking she would teach in a high school classroom for the rest of her life. Her current plans for after graduation are to pursue a master’s degree in history, then teach high school for a few years before working toward her doctorate.

Eventually, Shirley would like to move from the high school classroom to the college classroom, where professors also are able to conduct research in addition to teaching.

“It very much changed my life plan, which is really incredible and I feel really good about it,” Shirley said. “Without this opportunity through the Lumen prize, I don’t think I would have even had the opportunity to know what I really, really want to do with the rest of my life.”