Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When is an overview just dumbing down?

At Saratoga National Battlefield, I watched the 20-minute film in the visitor's center and having read the book, Saratoga, by Richard Ketchum, among others, I was full of details and background and context. But the film was not. I gave the park service a pass since they were just trying to provide a brief overview suitable for anyone and everyone to get a feel for what had happened.

But as the day wore on and we drove and walked all over the sprawling battlefield, it occurred to me that there is a fine line between an overview and simply dumbing down the material. For one example, the Hessian soldiers were referred to simply as Germans. I don't recall any mention of the soldiers that came from Brunswick. Why does this trifle matter? Well, there was no Germany at the time. Hesse and Brunswick were independent states. It would be almost 100 years before their unification as Germany the way we know it today. Some may find this a trivial point and suggest it is a necessary revision for the unitiated to understand. Wrong. This could easily have been accomplished by stating "soldiers from Hesse, what is now Germany...".

In the Junior Ranger Gazette available free at national parks, a quarter page item about Thaddeus Kosciuszko and his national monument stated "his job was to secure important areas around protect the soldiers and citizens of Pennsylvania." Omitting his substantial contribution in engineering at the battle of Saratoga minimizes his true contribution to the Revolution.

This issue is all the more important because the source is the U.S. government via the National Park Service and they are perceived as the authority on the subject. If they are presenting the material as factual and educational then they should at least get the facts correct. That includes errors of omission.

Further, these two examples demonstrate precisely how historical facts become distorted over the years then questioned and eventually lost - discarded like the last name of the last partner of a law firm.

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