During the summer I often arrived to work early and so would bring a book to read while waiting for my shift to start. One of the books I read was James J. O’Donnell’s “Pagans: The End of Traditional Religion and the Rise of Christianity”. The first chapter of which begins as follows:
“The best way to explore Roman religion is to go to Rome for a few days and spend some time in the homes of the ancient gods. We could take a camera. We’d likely have a tour guide who annoy us in a hundred petty ways, but at least we’d hear stories about what we saw. The good news is that we’d hear a story about paganism that sounded very familiar and wouldn’t tax our attention too much. The bad news is that it wouldn’t have much truth to it”
What was my job for the summer? Tour guide.
Yeah, I felt very appreciated at that moment. And O’Donnell actually keeps on the snide comments about tour guides and “tour guide history” throughout the first chapter. Thank goodness he dropped the topic for the most part after that because it was getting old quick.
Now don’t get me wrong. I understand that sometimes you get shitty tour guides. Or tour guides who have a script to follow that’s outdated or not well researched. Tour guides who are going to tell you what they know and you’re not always going to see the research and sources behind it.
But you also have to keep in mind that tour guides can’t be perfect experts on everything. They’ve got to be able to tell you the broad strokes of the subjects they’re covering. They usually aren’t PhD professors who are paid to deep dives on very specific subjects. I mean in certain places tour guides aren’t paid at all; they rely on you tipping them after a tour. Which people aren’t going to do if they expect the guide to be an expert on their specific area of interest at a PhD level (and screw anybody else who doesn’t have that interest or you know, just wants to learn a little more about the place?)
I’m sorry I’m getting heated but getting snide remarks thrown at you like this is frustrating. It’s the thing that sticks with you. I’ve guided so many people who have thanked me for the tour, for my knowledge, for doing my best to answer questions. The first guest I think about: the old man who called me a member of the German army for following a script that considered Sir John A. MacDonald to be a flawed man. Yeah, I think about being called a Nazi because I mentioned that the first Prime Minister of Canada used to drink a lot. I also mentioned speculation that he had an affair with a local tavern owner which he really didn’t appreciate despite the tour being about “Ghosts and Mysteries” and the fact that this speculation is so wide spread that Wikipedia mentions it. If you didn’t want a speculative tour then maybe don’t take the one literally advertised around ghosts and mysteries?
What I’m trying to say here is sometimes you’ve got to pick and choose. If you know the subject really well then maybe don’t take a tour designed to be introductory. Most tour guides are working on the assumption that, while you might be interested in the subject matter, you don’t know much about it and that’s why you’re taking the tour. They’re entire thing is give you a basic overview of the subject or place with the understanding that, if something really piques your interest, you can then delve into the subject on a much deeper level. That’s why we have books on the subject (and as a side note, I doubt a single book of a total 273 pages including the index can explore the topic to the depth and degree that every single thing is explained and there are no more questions. O’Donnell here is giving the tour guide version in book format).
But there is a major difference between reading a book and being in that place itself while someone tells you about it. A trip I took to Germany, Austria, and the Czech in highschool showed me that. A lot of the places we went to weren’t guided; you were literally looking at things with no context whatsoever. And it sucked!
I wanted to know more. It didn’t have to be expert “I’ve studied this one particular building my entire academic career” guiding, but something, anything would have been preferred. That trip formed my interest in guiding during the summer and my interest in guiding is attached to me goal of becoming a professor.
I love history. I love learning something new and then teaching that to someone else. I love watching my tours light up when I joke about military planning gone wrong and cringe when I mention the explosion of a gunpowder warehouse. I like keeping history light and dark and shades of gray and most importantly: keeping it alive. The moment you become an automated machine explaining things, even in extreme detail, then history is dead. It doesn’t matter anymore because there is no passion on passing it from person to another.
Sometimes you got to lean into the mysteries, the speculation, and inability to know for certain what thoughts caused what actions because people are difficult and complicated and flawed. Half of our history is made up because it’s written by the victors and you’ve got to point that out too. History is stories. And finding the truth in stories is really hard. Because stories always change.
When O’Donnell snarks about the “tour guide history” he highlights something deeply important: this is the history we’ve known up to now. It’s changed. It’s different now. And the tour guides will change their stories too as that development comes to light. But to kick down at the guides is to forget that the world of academia wouldn’t exist if history was static and known by all.
We’re all trying to learn and we’re all trying to teach others (even if we don’t realize that). So, don’t get snarky with the guides. Learn something you love and become a guide yourself.