The Imperative of Public Participation
Anthony Grafton and James Grossman, May 2011
Take risks. Get out there in public and talk about history and why it matters.1
As the two of us were thinking last summer about our prospective leadership roles at the AHA, Jim decided to make his position clear from the outset: we historians ought to take seriously our role as mediators between the past and the present. Three months later, in his inaugural column, Tony attacked the issue from a different angle. He pointed to the direct relevance of historical scholarship—even scholarship that might seem arcane: "Historians of everything from drought in ancient Egypt to the economy of modern China do, in fact, have knowledge that matters—knowledge based on painstaking analysis of hard sources, which they convey to students and readers as clearly and passionately as can be managed."2
We remain committed to these braided notions of the role of historians and of historical scholarship in public life. From the start, we wanted to insist that our research has value for the world beyond the classroom and scholarly journal. It stimulates critical thinking, it contributes to our knowledge of our neighbors and ourselves, and it provides vital context for contemporary conversation. Wringing your hands over our "academically adrift" educational system and the inability of our youth to take ideas seriously? Read Plato. Want to wrestle with the concept of peer culture as an aspect of that problem? Read Paula Fass's The Damned and the Beautiful: American Youth in the 1920s. But we were also urging our colleagues to be proactive. Write an op-ed piece about higher education, drawing on your historical expertise. Run for the local school board to give your community the benefit of your learning. Help create an exhibition at the historical society or the library. Our scholarship is useful in one context in the form of the books and articles that we write for colleagues and students. It is useful in other, equally significant, ways in more public venues. "Public culture," Jim wrote, "would benefit from the voices of historians."
Be careful what you wish for.
In March, the incoming president of the American Historical Association, William Cronon, created a blog, entitled "Scholar as Citizen." As the title indicated, Cronon planned to draw on his expertise as a historian to comment on public affairs. In his first post he suggested that the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a conservative organization that drafts model legislation for state legislators around the country, had played a shadowy but significant role in organizing Wisconsin Republicans to attack the state's public service unions (see the sidebar for the list of the links to this blog post and to the others mentioned in this essay). An environmental historian, Cronon had encountered ALEC before, since it had opposed environmental regulation. He now offered fellow citizens of Wisconsin a "study guide": a long series of links to online material with which they could examine the work and influence of ALEC and see if his arguments checked out. He also urged all players to come out into the open and called for a restoration of civility. In short, he demonstrated how a scholar could act responsibly in the public sphere, as a citizen and a historian, mobilizing his expertise at careful research, analysis, and synthesis.
Two days after Cronon's post appeared, the Wisconsin Republican party replied, not with an argument but with a request, based on Wisconsin's Open Records law, for e-mails to and from him containing certain search terms. Cronon argued on his blog that the Open Records request was inappropriate: to comply fully with it would compromise the confidentiality of his communications with students, colleagues, and professional associations like the AHA. He also repeated his critique of Republican tactics in this case, more sharply, in an op-ed piece in the New York Times.
News of the affair spread rapidly. Cronon's blogs received a vast number of hits: eventually, more than 2 million. Other blogs—historical, legal, political—picked up and commented on the story. Many of them—even normally conservative blogs like the Volokh Conspiracy—sided with Cronon, or argued, as the conservative writer Reihan Salam did, that while Cronon had not proved his own case, the Open Records request for his e-mails was inappropriate. There was plenty of debate and disagreement across the blogosphere. But most bloggers felt, and said, that the Republicans had crossed a line, and their posts and cross-posts began to draw the attention of media professionals.
Remarkably, most of them sided with Cronon. Journalists usually support Freedom of Information requests on principle. Like historians, after all, they have both a duty and an inclination to fight for transparency and the free flow of information. But at times, , it seems as if there's little love lost between these two breeds. Historians often complain that journalists miss historical nuances, while journalists regularly point out that historians seem to write with their elbows.
What the Cronon affair showed, however, was that these traditional stereotypes no longer fit reality (if they ever did). One of the most influential political journalists in the United States is a card-carrying historian, Joshua Micah Marshall, who earned his PhD in history at Brown University before beginning a career in print journalism. He now edits the influential liberal website Talking Points Memo, which he founded. On March 24, in an eloquent post headed "My Worlds Collide," he wrote of his astonishment at seeing a historian whose work had meant a great deal to him when he was a graduate student, caught up in the "thuggish" politics of the present day.
Working in China, James Fallows, one of the most respected long-form journalists in the United States, read Marshall's post. On March 25 he posted his reaction on his own blog. Fallows too, it turned out, had read and admired Cronon's works, which he described as "books any writer would be proud to claim." He too saw Cronon's blog post as a legitimate part of his work, and he called the Republican request for records "a flat-out effort at personal intimidation."
Paul Krugman, an academic and part-time journalist, also defended Cronon on his blog on the next day and in a full-scale column in the New York Times on March 27. Like his colleagues, he made clear his admiration for Cronon's academic work, especially Nature's Metropolis, "the best work of economic and business history I've ever read—and I read a lot of that kind of thing," and defended his public intervention. On March 25, the New York Times editorial board joined in, describing the request for Cronon's e-mails as "a clear attempt to punish a critic."
Meanwhile the historical community was going to work in its own way. To our delight, some history blogs took the opportunity to reflect on the larger visions of democracy and of public intellectual life that Cronon seemed to be engaging. The members of the AHA Council, scattered across the continent, began to work up a statement. The text—which stated the basic details and challenged the Wisconsin Republicans to withdraw their request and join a public discussion instead—took shape over two days of exchanges. All eventually agreed on the central points: that Cronon had been doing his job when he used his historical expertise to shed light on contemporary public affairs, and that the Open Records request, if fully accepted, would have the effect of closing down, not promoting, the sort of open discussion of public issues that the law had originally been drafted to promote (see the text of the statement).
Heartening expressions of support—and articulate defenses against objections—flooded in to the AHA web site as soon as the statement was posted. Since then, the Organization of American Historians has joined the AHA in deploring the "chilling effect" of the Open Records request. Other professional organizations as well have defended Cronon and academic freedom. Encouragement came from another great newspaper when the Washington Post's editorial board registered its agreement with the AHA: "freedom-of-information requests can also be used in abusive ways, to intimidate political adversaries and chill free speech. " Journalists and scholars, it seemed, don't necessarily belong to mutually antagonistic communities. They meet on common ground as writers who appreciate one another's efforts to offer powerful interpretations of the past and the present; as defenders of open research and discussion, inside and outside the academy; as creators of narrative and analysis embedded in evidence; and as readers and writers on the Web, where discussions easily cross all boundaries.
Many historians, like Bill Cronon, teach at universities. In this case the university has also served as a vital source of community and support. The University of Wisconsin stood up for freedom of expression a century ago, when efforts were made to purge Richard Ely for his support of unions. In subsequent years it has not always lived up to the glorious principles it enunciated then. But in this case, the University has done so with a flourish. John Dowling, university counsel, was struck by the request's inattention to legal issues (such as the privacy protections guaranteed to students), and by its imprecise terminology. Lawyers, like historians, bring professional expertise to public affairs. Dowling declared Cronon's conduct "beyond reproach in every respect." And even as he forwarded some e-mails, he explained, in sharp, clear language, that the Open Records act conveys no right to members of the public to see e-mails between Cronon and his students, his professional associations, or his colleagues. In effect, the university complied with the Open Records request while protecting exactly the private communications whose potential release Cronon had found unacceptable.
Biddy Martin, the university's chancellor, joined in as well, exhorting faculty "to ask difficult questions, explore unpopular lines of thought and exercise your academic freedom, regardless of your point of view." In hard times, faculty and administrators too often regard one another as adversaries. One notable result of the Cronon case has been to remind us all that we are colleagues, and that our chief goal is the same: to maintain a vital community where ideas can take shape and undergo challenges. The AHA's Statement of Standards makes this clear: historians "believe in vigorous debate, but they also believe in civility. These debates help us see more clearly that we need to support one another's right to participate in the vital arena of public affairs, whether we agree or disagree with a particular perspective.
Historians must leave their still and narrow chambers, enter the public square and engage with the world. Watching Bill Cronon do this, and following the results, we can draw some vital lessons. Saving the world is hard; even saving your own corner of the world is hard. Plenty of people will try to stop you. As Dr. Stockmann says in Ibsen's An Enemy of the People, "You should never wear your best trousers when you go out to fight for freedom and truth."
Whatever argument you make in public, many other engaged participants in the debate will disagree with you—which is exactly as it should be. But if you do the job as you should, using your expert knowledge and going where the evidence leads, you know that you won't find yourself isolated. When our systems work as they should, the historian who ventures into the realm of public debate finds that he or she is not alone, but is, instead, a member of multiple communities that rally even as they argue. It's a scene to delight anyone who prizes the open debate that has traditionally been a hallmark of American public life.
Anthony Grafton (Princeton Univ.) is the president of the AHA.
Jim Grossman is the executive director of the AHA.
Given the importance of the issues and the convergence of their ideas, they decided to collaborate and produce a single essay this month instead of the separate columns they would normally have written.
1. The concluding sentence of Jim Grossman, "History in a Public Square," Perspectives on History, 48:6 (September 2010). Online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2010/1009/1009exe1.cfm.
2. Anthony Grafton, "History under Attack," Perspectives on History, 49:1 (January 2011). Online at www.historians.org/perspectives/issues/2011/1101/1101pre1.cfm.
A Select List of Online Material Relating to William Cronon's Blog Post and Its Ramifications
William Cronon's blog post that led to the Wisconsin State Republican Party's request for Cronon's e-mail messages under the Open Records Law:
- "Who's Really Behind Recent Republican Legislation in Wisconsin and Elsewhere? (Hint: It Didn't Start Here)"
Following that request for his e-mails, and the ensuing media attention, Cronon kept readers up-to-date with what was happening with more posts that explained his position. See, for example:
- Abusing Open Records to Attack Academic Freedom
NYT Editorial and Other Coverage of Cronon Open Records Case.
This article was written after Cronon's op-ed, "Wisconsin's Radical Break" (which provided the historical background to the current political situation in the state), appeared in the New York Times of March 22, 2011, and online.
The AHA released a Statement of Support on March 27, 2011:
Later, the other associations also published statements of support.
- American Association of University Professors
- Organization of American Historians
- Modern Language Association
- American Anthropological Association
Several postings about the "Cronon Affair" were collected in a post on the AHA blog:
These include AHA President Anthony Grafton's posts at The New Yorker and The New York Review of Books: