Putting Public History in Its Proper Place
James McPherson, March 2003
From the President column of the March 2003 Perspectives
I cannot remember exactly when I first encountered the term "public history." It does not seem all that many years ago. And I am embarrassed to confess that I initially thought public history was the story of public events—the kind of history that most of us taught and wrote before the private lives of ordinary people in home and family became an important field of historical inquiry. This naive notion soon gave way to an understanding of the true meaning of public history—the presentation and interpretation of the past through such nonacademic venues as museums, historical societies, electronic media, historical parks and battlefields, public lectures, and books aimed at a broad public readership.
The practitioners of public history, therefore, include a broad range of museum and library curators; archivists; writers, lecturers, and television personalities without academic affiliations; park historians and rangers; federal and state employees concerned with historical preservation and interpretation; exhibit designers; and so on. Since November 2001, when I was chosen president-elect of the AHA, I have become increasingly aware that public historians feel like second-class citizens in this Association. In its early years the AHA had many nonacademic presidents-George Bancroft, George F. Hoar, James Ford Rhodes, Edward Eggleston, Theodore Roosevelt, and others. But since the 1920s a PhD and an academic appointment at a major research university have been a sine qua non for the AHA presidency and for most positions on the Council. Few participants in sessions at the annual meetings are public historians and an equally small fraction of these sessions deal with public history. The AHA sometimes appears to be a closed corporation run by and for professional academic historians.
The dominant elite within this larger elite consists of professors at the research universities that train most of the graduate students who will become future leaders of the AHA. Most members of this elite—I admit to being one of them—try to turn their students into clones of themselves. If our students do not get jobs at another research university or a good four-year college, we tend to consider them—and ourselves—subjects for condolence. Least desirable of all, it sometimes seems, are jobs in public history. The AHA's Committee on Graduate Education, which has been engaged in a thoroughgoing survey of doctoral programs in history during the past two years, found that only 7 percent of their PhDs in the 2000–01 academic year were placed in positions that could be defined as public history, compared with 81 percent in academic positions. These figures reflect the priorities of doctoral programs, of which 90 percent gave a high priority to training students for academic positions and only 10 percent placed a high priority on preparation for careers in public history. As one PhD student told the committee: "My interest in nonacademic careers is entirely covert . . . because I feel such pressure from my adviser to find a job at a good four-year university. I worry that, should she ever find out about this, she will decide that spending her time or the department's resources on me is wasteful."
To address this problem, the Committee on Graduate Education will recommend that "every effort should be made to reduce disciplinary and professional distinctions between academic historians and public historians." That also is one of the goals of the AHA Task Force on Public History established in January 2001 and scheduled to make a comprehensive report to the annual meeting in 2004. That report will reflect a conviction that "'public history' does not simply define a subset of historians or a special interest group within the AHA." Instead, public history should be "defined broadly, as a practice in which all historians can engage in meaningful and substantive ways, wherever they are employed."
In reflecting on this matter, I became aware that my own career could offer an example of how cross-fertilization between academic and public history might break down the apparent barriers between them. For 30 years after entering graduate school in 1958, my career followed a typical "academic" pattern—a PhD, a first job at a research university where I climbed the ranks and received tenure, the publication of two historical monographs that were bought mainly by libraries and other academic specialists in the field, several articles and many reviews in professional journals, a documentary collection and a textbook aimed primarily at the captive student market, and, except for an occasional lecture to a Civil War Round Table or other public audience, a focus of my time and energy entirely within the ivy-covered halls of academe.
In 1988, however, I published a book that despite its length of 900 pages with 1,500 footnotes reached a large audience that, so far as I can judge from the hundreds of letters I have received, consisted overwhelmingly of readers outside academia. To a lesser extent, the same has been true of the half-dozen books I have written since then. In the past 15 years I have given at least 200 lectures to a range of mainly nonacademic audiences. I have been a talking head on historical television programs, a member of the boards of trustees or the historical advisory boards of several organizations for historical preservation or historical museums, and president of something called "Protect Historic America," which prevented the Disney Corporation from building a historical theme park that would have compromised genuine historical sites. I have testified before congressional committees and lobbied government agencies on these matters. In fact, during the 1990s I spent so much time on these public history endeavors that I felt guilty about shortchanging my Princeton students. I was careful never to miss a class, but I had to prepare for some of these classes while riding in airplanes or trains.
In the end, however, I concluded that my activities in the public sphere broadened my perspectives and enriched both my teaching and writing. And reciprocally, my experience in trying to explain complex historical issues to students in the classroom helped me in efforts to do the same to a variety of public audiences. Cross-fertilization really worked. It is not only possible but desirable for an academic historian to breach that artificial barrier between the classroom and the larger world. I acknowledge that it is easier to do so in my field than in most others. The public audience in this country for Civil War history is probably larger than for any other subject. Nevertheless, in an era of globalization, knowledge of the past-even the remote past-of all human societies is necessary to help us to understand and cope with the world we live in today. There are many venues in which all of us can contribute to that knowledge and understanding-classroom, museum, book, television, Internet, journal article, op-ed essay, public lecture, and so on. What is important is not our place of employment or our specialty but the quality and insight of our message.
—James M. McPherson (Princeton Univ.) is president of the AHA. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.