Letters to the Editor

Historians and the Public(s)

Martha Hodes and Ronald J. Grele, September 2000

To the Editor:

Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen fall into an illuminating trap in their respective articles in the May issue of Perspectives ("Popular Uses of History in the United States: Professional Historians and Popular Historymakers" and "Popular Uses of History in the United States: Individuals in History"). Throughout both essays, the authors mark nonwhite respondents ("an African American from Georgia," "a Mexican American school district employee from South Texas") or identify nonwhite respondents through lead-in sentences ("Sioux Indians talked regularly about..." or "Black respondents most often found..."). At the same time, white respondents go unmarked ("a 32-year-old physical therapist," "a 25-year-old student from Massachusetts," "a young woman from Ohio," "a New Jersey collection analyst," "a Maryland floral designer," "a 43-year-old woman from Las Vegas," and "a 75-year-old retired man from Westfield, New Jersey").

The survey demonstrated that African Americans and Indians think more in terms of collective histories and cultures than white Americans, for whom, Rosenzweig writes, "the 'usable past' was largely the story of their own families." This may well be so, but by leaving white people unmarked, Rosenzweig and Thelen contribute to this differential: unmarked, whites become the norm, the generic Americans who understand themselves as dimly related to the nation's triumphs, but largely remote from such fundamental parts of the American past as slavery, genocide, and oppression—the parts of the American past that require social action in the present day.

—Martha Hodes
New York University

 To the Editor:

I found your special issue on Historians and the Public(s) of great interest. Each essay deserves a close reading and commentary, but I am writing now to draw attention to some of the issues raised by Michael J. Devine in his essay, "Professional Issues Beyond the Classroom."

Devine's analysis of the strength of public history is on target and some of his recommendations, while not new or unique, deserve attention and support. But I have serious reservations about his starting point that "history buffs and amateurs" stand as symbols of all that is wrong about the traditional professional attitudes toward public historians, and the growing gap between academic historians and the wider public. This stance, it strikes me, promotes one set of the goals of the public history movement in order to undermine a second and equally important set.

The first goal is, as Devine points out, to encourage and prepare academic historians to expand the range of their interests and activities beyond university and college teaching and the publication of research monographs, and to urge them to take responsibility for a much more active role in the historical community. Often couched in terms of the reality of the job market, the ways in which this charge has been conceived and articulated by public historians has always been much broader and much more ambitious than simply finding work for graduate students. Equally important has been the mission to encourage citizens to become more involved in the creation of their own history, to aid and assist members of the community to hone their skills to become equal partners in the attempt to understand the past of the community. The basic tenet of this mission is, in the words of Raphael Samuel, to view history as an activity not as a narrow academic profession. The aim of many of us has been to assist people to become their own historians, to demystify what it is we do and thereby break through the more narrow definitions of history and historian.

This side of the public history movement speaks to the reality that in many instances the most creative leaders of historical agencies, libraries, archives, museums, and publishing ventures are not PhDs, academically trained historians, but those who began their work as "buffs and amateurs." They are precisely those whom Devine would now read out of the profession. I can think of no easier way for academic historians to alienate a large segment of their audience, and their supporters, than to take such a short sighted and elitist position.

It strikes me that our real problem is the drive to apply the model of the private corporation to all institutions of public life, including academic and historical agencies, so that the bottom line comes to define all intellectual effort. The sides are not defined by what degree one holds and from where, but by differing ideologies of service. In this struggle, academic historians should be allies in the battle for a more humane and participatory history, not manipulators of the marketplace.

—Ronald J. Grele
Columbia University