- The State of Ohio HistoryA Roundtable Discussion
Gregory S. Wilson
This past year, I challenged a talented group of colleagues to consider the state of Ohio history and present their ideas at the Ohio Academy of History annual meeting in 2015. I meant for us to contemplate both research about Ohio, as well how we teach and present that history in Ohio’s schools and its public history settings. Happily, they accepted. Stemming from that conversation, L. Diane Barnes commissioned the following set of essays for publication here.
Several things prompted my concern, and many of them are described in the following pages. My colleague at the University of Akron, Kevin F. Kern, and I coauthored a new state history of Ohio, and I thought it might be an opportune moment to step back and examine how we tell the story of a state, and whether telling that story remained important and useful, or even just plain interesting.1 Many years into the “cultural turn” in the discipline of history, and with more attention paid to global and transnational histories, [End Page 7] whither the focus on something so seemingly trite as a state, let alone Ohio, an entity rarely associated outside the state with anything besides blandness, deindustrialization, and football? I had wondered, too, how the teaching of Ohio’s history fared both in the public schools and at the college level. Having worked with teachers from across Ohio, as well as history professionals working outside academe, I also thought it wise to consider how Ohio’s history is faring in public history settings across the state. What stories, if any, are we telling—and hearing—about Ohio’s history?
The results of these musings are the ideas, questions, and suggestions penned below from L. Diane Barnes, Kevin F. Kern, David J. Merkowitz, and Donna M. DeBlasio. I thank each of them for their contributions. Together, they demonstrate that the people of Ohio remain interested in history generally and in the history of Ohio in particular. But they caution us, in various ways, to be alert for just how and why that history is being used, threats to history as a professional subject and discipline, and how it is being taught and studied. To paraphrase a famous quotation, the price of critically engaged, supported, and relevant history is eternal vigilance. Together these essays highlight the past foundation of Ohio history and offer important pleas for new directions in the study, teaching, and presentation of Ohio’s rich, compelling, and important history.
part i: the ohio history journal
L. Diane Barnes
As editor of the Ohio History journal, I have been thinking a lot about state history and whether it has outlived its usefulness as a category of study, perspective, and analysis. I think maybe it has, at least in its current practice. The ways that state history has been conceived and approached in the last fifty years (maybe one hundred years) has changed little. This failure of practitioners of Ohio history to keep up with the times created an impression of the field as anachronistic and backward looking.
Scholarly submissions to the journal have remained fairly constant and centered around just a few subjects: state politics and politicians, state development and infrastructure, and war, with a little of abolitionism, civil rights, and the Kent State shootings thrown in for good measure. This persistent trend continues today, and I am as guilty as earlier editors of maintaining [End Page 8] the old guard. A recent volume, for example, included a cogent essay exploring the influence of Thomas Jefferson’s 1801 religious liberty letter to the Danbury, Connecticut, Baptists on the framers of the 1803 Ohio Constitution. Another examined James A. Garfield’s front-porch campaign for the presidency, while a third considered the intersection of slavery, race, and regional identity in Ohio during the early republic.2 Excellent scholarship drove all of these essays, and the historiography of the state advanced in each area; however, these same subjects might have appeared in the Ohio History of a...