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    John Warner is the author of Why They Can't Write: Killing the Five-Paragraph Essay and Other Necessities and The Writer's Practice: Building Confidence in Your Nonfiction Writing.


The Stories We Tell and Who Gets to Tell Them

Thoughts on the responsibilities surrounding curriculum, assessment, and accreditation. 

May 6, 2018

The City of Charleston is facing a dilemma that raises interesting issues of education, assessment, and accreditation.

Oh, and also the First Amendment.

Recently, a federal District Court Judge heard testimony on a lawsuit challenging a Charleston city regulation requiring tour guides to pass a 200-question test focused on the city’s history. The test questions are drawn from a 490-page manual produced by the Historic Charleston Foundation. 

The lawsuit has been filed by The Institute for Justice on behalf of plaintiffs who had failed the exam, with the goal of proving, in the words of lead attorney Arif Panju, “The government does not get to pick who tells stories for a living.” 

The city argues that it has a right to protect the tourism industry so firmly rooted in Charleston’s past by requiring those who are employed as guides to prove they know the history.

As an avid traveler, often exposed to the work of expert guides, I’ve marveled at how much they know. At the same time, even as a guide is busy telling me about, for example, the explosion at Pompeii, I realize that I have no idea if he or she is telling me the truth.

I simply have to trust that our incentives are aligned, that it is in the guide’s interest to convey accurate information, and it is in my interest to learn the “true” history, as opposed to being fed a potentially more entertaining, but inaccurate version.

Perhaps this says something about my sense of humor and my roots as a fiction writer, but I’ve sometimes thought about how fun it would be to be a tour guide who simply makes stuff up. With the right delivery and sufficient projected confidence to back down a tourist who may actually know something, I figure you could get away with it indefinitely. Just make sure the history you’re telling is sufficiently trivial and impossible to check.

Charleston already offers many “ghost tours,” with information that I assume is perhaps rooted in truth, but essentially unverifiable given the nature of the “history.” On a ghost tour, I imagine the audience is hoping to be entertained and spooked, rather than edified. A stretching of the truth here or there may be necessary to fulfill the audience expectation.

It is the “story” part of history which has me thinking more deeply about this situation. Charleston would like to train its tour guides to tell the official story of the city.

Once certified, the guide is under no obligation to share the history as codified by the Historic Charleston Foundation, though one has to think that the nature of education and learning suggests it would be difficult or unlikely for a guide to alter what tourists are told.

I have not read the tome, but it is not difficult to imagine the type of historical narrative the Historic Charleston Foundation puts forward. Despite it’s 490 pages, I’m going to guess that it is perhaps limited and tinged by the foundation’s stated role of “preserving” Charleston history.

The full history of Charleston must reckon with its status as the center of white supremacy of in the pre-Civil War South. I have taken several of these tours and while slavery was mentioned, it was not explored in depth. A Post & Courier journalist who took the exam in 2015 remarked the test had “virtually no questions about slavery, but 10 questions tested people’s knowledge of 10 prominent Lowcountry historical figures — and whether they were buried in St. Michael’s or St. Philip’s cemeteries.” 

This is unsurprising as a statue of a white supremacist stands over the city’s most prominent public square, the man who paved the way for the war with his “positive good” theory of slavery, even as some believed it was on its way to “a natural death.” 

Even an attempt to tell a fuller story of John C. Calhoun in a historical marker which first resulted in a “toned-down” message, is now in “limbo” following public opposition and an indecisive city council. 

The lawsuit has already resulted in ending a previous oral exam which tripped up many applicants. The Post & Courier journalist talked to a number of test-takers who complained of the test’s seeming randomness and unfairness, trivia pulled out of the 490 page document, the likelihood of passing a crapshoot. One said it reminded her of taking the legal Bar exam.

Similar lawsuits have succeeded in other cities, including Savannah, and resulted in the ending of this kind of test.

All of this has me thinking about the responsibilities we have when tasked with educating, assessing, credentialing as Charleston is here. Through one lens, Charleston is doing an important service, preventing fly-by-night no-nothings from peddling nonsense in the city streets.[1]

Through another, they’re perpetuating partial truths, which, let’s face it, is a euphemism for lies.

Or at least not the whole story.


[1] In reality, though, the tour companies themselves have an interest in not allowing guides to stray too far from reality. Though, it would be an interesting business strategy for a company to set aside some of its tours for the history that the Charleston Historical Society doesn’t have in its manual. 


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