On Public History
Laura Feller, September 2004
To the Editor:
The conversation between Jonathan Spence and Gerald Prokopowicz in the May 2004 Perspectives raises questions that I hope will engage AHA members. Why don’t more academic historians take up the "privilege and challenge" of seeking audiences larger than those they can reach through classroom lectures or works that only other historians will read? Isn’t public history defined not only by "its connection to public audiences" but also by its connections to managers and policy-makers? What kinds of training and experience prepare a historian for doing public history? I agree that "a public historian must first be a historian." Given that statement, though, I was puzzled that the Spence-Prokopowicz conversation suggests that a master’s degree is sufficient, if not terminal, for public-history practitioners. Good public history, just as much as classroom teaching, requires mastery of the craft and literature(s) of history. At a time when massmedia discussion of many important issues—from welfare and de-industrialization to the Geneva Conventions—is disgracefully lacking in historical perspective, the stakes for the profession and this society are high, and there is a great need to promote excellence in the history that reaches the largest audiences. That means conceiving of the training of public historians in ways that include but are not limited to the MA.
It is dismaying also that so many discussions by and for historians reinforce the notion that public history work is a second choice, offered up to students only because they are unlikely to get academic jobs. In the list of "overriding problems" in the profession, the "employment crisis" seems minor compared to this issue: why are so many academics content to leave the largest audiences for history to nonhistorians? As the end of the Spence-Prokopowicz conversation does suggest, a major problem for the profession as a whole is why anyone might agree with those who say that "History is too important to be left to the historians."