Publication Date

May 1, 2000

Historians use specialized language and seek to develop comprehensive analyses of the past. The rest of society rejects what they identify as jargon and draw meaning from the anecdotal. What, then, is—and should be—the relationship between the history profession and the public?

Five years ago historians faced sweeping criticism in reaction to the development of the National History Standards and the Enola Gay exhibit at the Smithsonian Institution. By comparison, today’s climate for history seems positively tranquil. But what should historians do with this moment? It would be a mistake for historians to view the end of the latest round of scrutiny as a time to return to business as usual in the classrooms, museums, archives, and other settings where they “do” history. The relationship with the public is a basic component of the work of the historian even when that tie is not in the headlines. So historians should confront, not write off, the underlying dynamics of the mid-1990s furor. Is it simply in the nature of the work of historians occasionally to have to deal with periods of vocal public concern? Or do the recent conflicts represent an invitation to redefine the relationship between the profession and society as a significant, ongoing bond?

The articles collected for this issue of Perspectives explore aspects of the relationship with the public(s) with the goals of stimulating discussion about this “external” relationship and promoting recognition of the fact that our actions during these periods of quietude will shape the nature of challenges from and support by the public during future moments of vocal public concern about history and historians. The belief advanced here is that this relationship should not be starkly delineated; the boundary between historians as a professional group and the public as a collection of people interested in our work should be highly permeable.

This is not a simple issue. When the contributing editors of Perspectives discussed the idea of a theme issue on the relationship between historians and the public, there was considerable recognition that, for many historians, it was more appropriate to speak of “public” in the plural, as “publics.” In other words, there was immediate debate over how to define the people “out there” with whom we were interacting. The nature of society was less important earlier in the century when historians were primarily concerned with the creation of an autonomous profession. This effort attempted to relegate the public and its concerns to the sidelines even though historians justified their work in part as essential for the development of good citizenship. Although attempts by citizens to assert their concerns about history were regarded by professionalizing historians as inappropriate intrusions, it is important to note that they occurred frequently.1

The clamor of the mid-1990s was not an isolated moment. It was both a continuation of a century of public concern about national history and also part of new expectations by the public that they be involved as developers and not just consumers of the work of historians.2 The fact that the recent criticisms were central to a partisan political movement should not obscure the continuing concerns of citizens. Historians should not be surprised at the insistence of public voices on historical issues; we should instead find ways to work with all people who share our interest in the meanings of the past.

The first two essays presented here define public attitudes toward history and point out some similarities and differences between professional and public definitions of the historical. Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen have each provided an essay based on their extensive survey of public attitudes toward history, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life.3 The book describes the ways people gain central meanings in their lives from the past, and how they regard the formal work products of the historian. Roy Rosenzweig‘s essay is a brief summary of the statistical conclusions drawn from nearly 1,500 interviews with randomly selected Americans. He shows that connecting with the past is of vital importance for most Americans. David Thelen offers his understandings of the basic ways in which professional historians and the general public differ in their ways of locating meaning in the past. His categories will help historians—and the public—understand the approaches of the other. Together these essays give historians a sense of the promising possibilities of consciously reaching out to the public.

The next four essays present the concerns of classroom historians who feel that the public exerts constant pressure to divert class time to issues that do not belong in the history classroom. Collectively these essays underscore the feeling that widespread public support for history does not necessarily foster a positive environment for the classroom teacher who must wrestle with the expectations of pressure groups. John Pyne summarizes the many agendas that are present in the secondary school classroom, including those which are ahistorical if not actively antihistorical. He identifies these agendas and uses survey data to define further the scope of the problem. The expectation that colleges will reflect business values and serve business needs is the theme of Charles Zappia‘s essay. Although community colleges are a traditional site of business involvement in the curriculum (in many ways, justifiably so), Zappia presents evidence to underscore that all colleges and their faculties need to recognize and counter these demands collectively rather than on a case-by-case basis. Craig Lockard writes from his experiences promoting a place for world history in the curriculum. Deeply affected by the struggles over the National History Standards five years ago, he presents the traditional argument that good history often encounters stiff opposition from those who want to preserve old issues and perspectives. Finally, Arthur Zilversmit draws on his experiences in the debates over the Illinois standards for social sciences and history. He not only underscores the powerful presence of nonhistorical viewpoints in these deliberations but also points out that many of these decisionmakers do not even seek out the thinking of professional historians while developing curricular criteria that affect history in the classroom. All these four writers stress the need for historians to work together on these issues.

Part of the solution to relations with society at large—of which we are a part—lies in the willingness of historians to work with the public in an open and equal relationship. Some historians felt betrayed by the attacks of the mid-1990s. But attempts to retreat into professionalism are likely doomed to failure, especially for historians financed by the public sector. Furthermore, historians cannot establish good working relationships with the public using concerted, sweeping, short-term programs of public relations. The appropriate analogy for dealing with this relationship is found in the patient labors of gardening. The maintenance work of gardening includes a lot of small and repetitious tasks—weeding, pruning, mulching. Although each of these tasks may not yield an impressive, immediate result, the long-term impact is measurable and valuable. Historians have to do some gardening in their approaches to the publics.4

In this spirit, the next three essays are "gardening" reports. Harry Rubenstein of the Smithsonian Institution took seriously the claim that it was possible to do good museum programs on controversial issues in the post-Enola Gay era. He recounts how a team of curators developed Between a Rock and a Hard Place: A History of Sweatshops in America, 1820–Present. The exhibit appeared in the National Museum of American History in 1998 and then traveled to the Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, where it closed in April of this year. James Banner shares the director duties of the History News Service, a low-cost, volunteer operation that places authoritative essays on historical subjects in newspapers around the country. Finally, Patricia Seed reports on the rewards of approaching the public on the internet without the trappings of academia. She developed a web site on a topic of interest to her—the history of navigation in the 15th century—but did not present it as part of a larger web enhancement of a course. In this way she has had some interesting and valuable interactions with nonacademic audiences.

But what about historians themselves? Is the whole issue simply public interaction and "spin"? Historians should not for a moment think that all of the issues are with the folks "out there"—the final two essays call on historians to rethink aspects of their own profession as it relates to the public. Angela Wilson wants historians to reconsider how they relate to the public (as a single entity) and what they owe the native peoples of North America. She believes that because a lot of historical work is addressed only to academic audiences, any successful outreach by historians to society must involve the inclusion of more voices and more perspectives than are currently found in the history profession. Finally Michael Devine is alarmed at the complacency of many historians toward programs that are designed to work directly with the general public. In the hope of remedying this condition, he offers a list of changes that graduate programs need to consider in order to enable our future graduates to establish an effective working relationship with the public.

The relationship between the history profession and our publics is central to the maintenance and long-term role of historical consciousness in society. Obviously, certain questions have not been addressed fully in this issue. Historians seem clearer on what the relationship with society is but less clear on what it should be. The goal of this collection of essays was not to answer these questions or provide comprehensive action plans but rather to stimulate discussion and urge more historians to take this relationship seriously and work to improve it. If we seek to claim special status in society as historians, we need to remember that in other parts of our lives we comprise part of other people's publics.


1. Examples of attempted public intrusion—or involvement—in the work of historians are in Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The "Objectivity Question" and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988), 197–200, 512–521.

2. See, for example, Robert R. Archibald, "Exhibitions in a History Museum: Inclusive History for a Diverse Public," OAH Newsletter (May 1999), 5, 9.

3. New York: Columbia University Press, 1998.

4. For one example of a "guide to gardening," see Patricia Nelson Limerick, "A How-To Guide for the Academic Going Public," Perspectives (December 1999), 1, 17–20.

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