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From the In Conversation column of the May 2006 Perspectives

In Conversation with Ian Tyrrell

Robert B. Townsend, May 2006

Ian TyrrellWherever historians gather, the conversation often turns to a discussion of why there seems to be such a distance between professional historians and the general public. For most historians working today, the relationship seemed to hit a nadir in the late 1990s with closed museum exhibits and rejected school curricula. As Ian Tyrrell, professor of history at the University of New South Wales, reminds us in his new book, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890–1970 (University of Chicago Press, 2005), these conversations and problems are hardly new. From the perspective afforded by teaching half a world away, and supported by extensive research in the archives of the profession here in the United States, Tyrrell offers a fresh take on the past of the history profession, challenging us to see the similarities between present problems and past ruptures in the relationship, and highlighting the resources historians have used to address them.

In March, Robert Townsend, AHA assistant director for publications and research, asked Ian Tyrrell (by e-mail) about some of the issues raised in and by his book.

Q: I think many Perspectives readers would agree that they fought the culture wars and lost. Why study the prehistory of those events?

The profession certainly faced powerful pressures in the 1990s against the kinds of multicultural history that had become fashionable among academics. In this sense historians were politically marginalized. But the profession, it seems to me, sets high standards for its influence and is disappointed when politicians ignorant or deliberately contemptuous of the nuances of academic debates blunder in. These standards are rarely measured against the practice of history in other times or in other countries.

The prehistory of the 1990s debate therefore provides perspective. In my opinion, historians are too quick to assume that their public influence has been in decline in recent years whereas at some distant and better time they shaped public perceptions of history. One point was to show how exaggerated this common impression is, and to show both the strengths and the weaknesses of the forms of professional engagement that have occurred in the past. Another was to examine closely the process of historical practice, as I call it, to see the different ways in which historians shaped and were influenced by audiences. Though historians in the past have given attention to professional practice, they have generally focused either on intellectual trends in historiography, or examined the work of prominent historians. I wanted to cast a wider net, and sought to root the activity of historians in its social and institutional setting. I hoped thereby to demonstrate the variety of responses among professional historians to their social roles, and to show the diversity of historical practice.

I was also concerned about attacks on the professional practice of history, coming both from within and outside the academy. I wanted to demonstrate that professional practice was not inimical to wider public engagement, but in some circumstances and under certain traditions of history making, could be made more compatible with public representations of history. I hoped in part to give historians confidence that tendencies towards specialization and professionalism were not the key problems, but rather the way practitioners of history in the academy related to the changing nature of historical audiences. I wanted to show that historians had modified their practice before and that, learning by example, this could be done again. Indeed, they might well recognize traditions that still influence them today.

Q: That seems to beg the question—why does the profession seem so prone to forget its own history?

Historians have made many contributions to the study of the origins and history of other disciplines but few to their own. They have, with rare exceptions, looked outward, perhaps fearing that to do otherwise would be either navel-gazing or excessively critical of their colleagues. However there have been exceptions, such as Peter Novick's book, That Noble Dream. And there has been a new interest in recent historical practice as shown in Thomas Bender et al.'s report to the AHA on graduate education (The Education of Historians in the Twenty-first Century) and in your own columns in Perspectives.

Another explanation for the absence of more such self-reflexive work is that American historians have for several decades neglected the broad and venerable fields of historiography and philosophy of history in favor of empirical work on the events of history itself. They have viewed historiography in a limited way as the study of patterns of historical interpretations or as a field divided by specialization. In these circumstances interest in or the ability to comprehend the whole discipline seemed to decline. The publication of the late John Higham's History (1965) was, as it turned out, something of an epitaph to the study of historiography in the United States.

Q: Why did you choose to explore the relationship(s) between historians and the public through the lenses of media, school curricula, and the development of applied and public history?

Debates about the declining interest in history and in the influence of professional historians over those debates have tended to assume a rather amorphous public or audience, such as the general reader. They have rarely specified what that audience is or was and how it changed. In practice, there was no single audience for history, but a multiplicity of audiences. These audiences were closely linked to changing technologies of historical production. The media, schools, and those who funded and used what is now called public and applied history were three forms of these audiences. When I examined these categories and historians' relationships to them, I discovered that there were overlaps and parallels, though the rhythms of historians' changing relations with their audiences did not always neatly synchronize, nor did the achievements of historians in dealing with those audiences.

Q: Do you think historians struggling to come to terms with the new digital media in their lives and classrooms can take some comfort from the past struggles of historians with changing forms of print media as well as film and radio?

As in many subjects discussed in the book, the picture is a mixed one. American historians in the 1920s to 1940s showed flexibility and innovation in dealing with the challenges of film and radio. However, the costs of producing feature films and rapid changes in the technology rendered this medium less available from the 1930s, whereas radio continued to be a field in which historians could contribute in the 1940s and 1950s, while they also made in the 1950s and 1960s their first hesitant attempts to analyze and come to grips with the new phenomenon of television.

There are some parallels with the new digital media. I would draw attention to the interesting Robert Binkley, a Case Western Reserve historian who worked professionally on European history. He served on an AHA committee in the 1930s dealing with the methods and opportunities for collecting historical sources, including reproduction using the new technology of microfilm. This and work by Herbert Kellar, a public historian who later served as president of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association, was important, and it did receive support from the AHA in the 1930s. However, World War II intervened, and the profession's priorities changed towards diplomatic, military, and (later) intellectual history. The AHA did support, for example, the microfilming of large collections of documents from the German Reich, but Binkley's aim of the democratic dissemination of, and popular involvement with, academics in the collection of, historical materials in American history was not pursued after the war at the level of the peak professional body. Binkley's visions had been inspired by the New Deal cultural agencies, and these met an untimely demise at the end of the 1930s. Moreover, Binkley himself tragically and prematurely died in 1940, but work like his continued through local and state histories societies into the 1950s and 1960s.

Q: You seem to arrive at a similar ambivalence about history in the school curricula, particularly about the American history profession's shift toward placing greater emphasis on U.S. history in the middle 20th century.

I am indeed ambivalent; the impact of the Progressives was to strengthen the place of American history within school curricula, especially the recent history of the United States. But a variety of forces led to the condensing of the diverse histories of Britain, France, the ancient and medieval world, and so on, into a single entity of Western civilization or world history. The development of world history was ultimately to be of great importance, but the time allotted in school curricula to study non-American history and distant times was reduced. This may have diminished the capacity of American students to think beyond their own national boundaries. However, it has to be noted that curricula in the schools was subject to a wide variety of external pressures in the 1920s to 1950s, in which the place given to history, geography, and foreign languages was under attack from school administrators and professional educators associated with radical forms of Progressive education. It is important not to regard historians as either a united or an autonomous body able simply to exert their influence upon the wider society or school curricula. Progressives tended to try to work with the schools rather than to impose their views, because to do otherwise would have been less effective.

Q: When historians talk about the profession's retreat from curricular issues, they tend to take a monolithic view of the history profession. How important were the internal fault lines on issues of geographic coverage, method, and the present utility of history?

I do think internal fault lines were quite important. The AHA was, for example, paralyzed for a time in the 1920s by debates over different strategies for dealing with history in the school curriculum and even in the 1930s divisions persisted. But the historical profession is a pluralistic one, and such differences are to be expected.

In any case, diversity has advantages. The existence of a variety of historical associations could on occasion be conducive to the spread of professional influence. The weakness often associated with institutional division may conceal a kind of strength. The Organization of American Historians (OAH), when it was the Mississippi Valley Historical Association (MVHA), had greater interest in public history, and stronger regional connections, because of its roots in the state and local historical society movement and its role as the major organization dealing with U.S. history. In turn, the MVHA for decades played an intermediate professionalizing role between the AHA and local and state history, with its influence feeding in both directions. Though the more recent proliferation of specialized historical groups in recent years, on topics such as gay history, African American history, alcohol and drug history, and environmental history can be seen today as a sign of the institutionalized fragmentation of a profession, these groups can speak more easily to the specialized audiences interested in those histories, and relate history better to the interdisciplinary fields of knowledge in the social and natural sciences. Environmental history is particularly important in this regard because of its potential to provide new syntheses of history as well.

Q: What are some of the other historical practices that build bridges to the public?

One is radio. A group of American historians in the 1930s and 1940s used radio because it was the major (and relatively new) mass medium reaching into most homes. Its possibilities fitted well with the academic's unfulfilled desire for a mass audience. Radio also had about it an immediacy and intimacy that television has subsequently, though not entirely, appropriated. I think that we do tend to focus rather too heavily on filmic representations of history and historians' ignorance of—or lack of interest in—these, while neglecting the possibilities of radio as a form of communication both of intellectual content and of sound as opposed to visual images. Today radio still has the advantage of relative cheapness in comparison with television programs and films, whilst radio may also have quite broad geographic coverage. Through specialist programs such as the OAH's own radio broadcasts, it appears historians have begun once more to utilize this important medium.

Another neglected sphere is the relationship between historians and local historical societies. I suspect that historians' input in this area is more extensive than we think, because it often goes unreported at the level of the national professional discourse. In the early part of the 20th century, local history societies provided an important point of connection with academic historians that ought to be further developed today.

Q: Is there a tendency in the profession to emphasize the negative in our relationships with institutions like the federal government, because they only appear in the story when they intrude on the production of monographs and articles?

Academic historians do, of course, tend to focus on monographic presentations of history as their most important activity. This has always been seen as critical to advancing knowledge. But in the period I studied, monographs were relatively less important and syntheses somewhat more valued. Moreover, universities, especially public ones, gave more weight to service through their institutional structures. One problem facing universities today, at least in my country, is how to reward the service scholars render to the profession and the wider public in a system that focuses heavily on measuring research by published output in refereed presses and journals. In the United States before World War II, the institutional structure of the public universities with their often-strong links to state libraries, archives, and historical associations facilitated diversity of approaches. Again, I am not at all certain that this tradition is absent today, but institutional and professional structures allocate to it lower priorities.

The relationship to the federal government may or may not enhance effective relationships to the public. The federal government has been one of the "publics" to which historians have related. I do believe the importance of the federal government to professional historians in the period from World War II till about 1960 has been neglected. It should be added that the connection to government was much stronger through state rather than the federal government from around 1900 to 1930; the New Deal and World War II changed all that. While the New Deal gave many opportunities for innovative relationships with various publics through the federal government, the audience for federal government history narrowed after World War II and became more focused on specialized agencies, and on military history topics. These agencies were doing important work, but it was not work that connected well with trends in the writing of academic history. Nor would technical work in some of the specialized agencies appeal to a wider nonspecialist audience. Rather, the work done was much more akin to the client-based histories associated with the term "applied history" since the 1970s. The amount of such history is underestimated. Whether its influence is great or not is much more open to speculation because one cannot measure it the way the number of book sales, monographs produced, or history majors can be measured. 

Q: So an important aspect of your book is to serve as a reminder to academics about the importance of history practitioners outside the academy who often serve as intermediaries in these disputes?

Yes, this was my intention. On the margins of academic history, these groups, including teachers, public historians, and the writers of popular histories, have not always been opposed to academic history. Indeed, they have often served to communicate the findings of academic historians. It is necessary to work with these groups rather than to see popular history writing as something inimical to academic history. One of the interesting things that I discovered was that academic historians in the 1920s and 1930s did not see scientific history and popular history as polarized, though there were tensions at times between the university people and others. Public historians similarly were for decades not clearly divided from professional academic historians; people moved back and forth between these groups, and many undertook both kinds of work. This was partly for employment reasons, especially in the hard decade of the 1930s when New Deal agencies did a good deal of historical work, but also because the Progressive interpretation of history from the time of Turner encouraged such interpenetration.

Q: How did your perspective as a historian teaching and writing in Australia affect your approach to the subject?

My position as a foreign national writing on American history from outside the United States has undoubtedly affected my approach, not least in terms of the logistics of research. Luckily I had an Australian Research Council Grant that gave me good access to the libraries and archives of the United States. I had also been gathering material on this topic for 20 years; indeed, whenever I was in the country working on some other topic.

More fundamentally, being an outsider has made me rather suspiscious about claims that American historians have lacked a certain standing in their society. In my own country, neither the government nor public audiences have taken the role of professional historians as seriously as in the United States. In the wider culture, expert opinion is not utilized much outside the deployment of medical and legal academics' advice. True, there are always certain Australian historians whose work is the subject of public debate, and others have been involved in assessments of the of indigenous peoples' land rights and related issues, but the number of these academics is very small and their position is subject to considerable political criticism. Public and political debates over the key issues in Australian history are very lively at present and correspond broadly to the conflicts over multiculturalism and political correctness as in the United States. But there is less of a role for professional historians in many related occupations in government, business, publishing and so on. Professional public history has been much more dynamic and extensive in the United States, though it is certainly the case that Australia has developed its own distinctive and useful practice in that field.

Comparative history, both implicit and explicit, underlies a good deal of my analysis in Historians in Public. I gave some explicit attention to European practice, in such areas as school curricula, amateur-professional relations, and state and local history. However there is no doubt that my antipodean perspective is an implicitly comparative one as well.

The book is also informed by a view, perhaps commonplace, but developed over many years, which may in my case have possibly come from viewing the U.S. from the outside. This is the idea that it is necessary to grasp the double nature of historical practice as both transnational and national. The practice of scientific history was broadly disseminated across the Euro-American world in the late 19th century, but institutional, political, and social conditions strengthened national historiographical traditions in the 20th century. Specific intellectual and institutional formations developed, which had both positive and negative features in each prominent national case, such as the English, the French and so on. In the American formation, this national historical practice developed alongside the growth of nation-state power and in some measure reflected the specific articulations of state power, such as the federal system and the growth of the nation-state during World War II and the Cold War. Since the 1960s this national distinctiveness has again been challenged as historical practice has become more cosmopolitan and transnational. The trick, I suppose, for the future, is to learn how to balance this necessarily more cosmopolitan practice with attention to national and local audiences. This is a challenge facing all national historiographies, and especially of the United States, because of the influence, including academic influence, that the nation wields internationally today. 

—Interview conducted by Robert B. Townsend, the AHA's assistant director for research and publications.