Publication Date

November 1, 2013


Public History

Last month, I introduced this column with a query about the nature of value. The issue on the table was President Obama’s speech on higher education and the policy framework underlying it. Back in January, I raised questions about an initiative in Florida to price public university tuition according to the “value” a given major provided the state’s economy. At the risk of beating a dead (if valuable) horse, I revisit those themes together here, this time with attention not only to students and degrees, but also to the broader landscape of historical work.

We begin with an apparent paradox. There is no question that Americans (and the rest of the world) care about history, find it interesting, and consider it an aspect of entertainment as well as edification. It might be easy to mobilize a raft of quotations from notables like Henry Ford or Mark Twain dismissing history as either “bunk” or “prejudice.” But it is even easier to invoke an equally distinguished cast (again including Twain) to remind us of the importance of recording, remembering, and reminding. When we consider the millions of Americans who visit historic sites every year, read works of popular history, and watch historically oriented films (some admittedly better than others), as well as the History Channel (Ice Road Truckers aside), we know that history takes up considerable cultural space. People care about the past, and they will spend money to be entertained by historical narratives, to learn about what they perceive as “their own” stories, and to participate in remembering through re-­creation-­whether at living history museums or through military reenactments.

At the same time, we lament parsimonious funding of historical work (both teaching and research) along with a general sense that historians, like other humanists, feel obliged to defend our contributions to our colleagues in other departments as well as to our administrators and fellow citizens. Americans, or at least state legislators and school governing boards, resist spendingpublic money on professional history: research, professional development for teachers, interpretive work at sites that goes beyond basic narrative, even educating college students about the past.

This is about more than mere politics. It also involves a lack of appreciation for why history and historical thinking are essential to intelligent public policy, sustainable international business, and informed citizenship. Instead, history is counted among those "useless" humanities disciplines that don't prepare students for employment. History majors have trouble finding work after graduation (true, given employment rates of recent college graduates) and make lower salaries (not necessarily true if one takes a longer term view). But my purpose here is neither to respond to those critiques nor to defend what we do.

Instead, I want simply to argue that we are barely participating in the conversation. In a recent article in Harper‘s (October 2013, p. 12), Thomas Frank (a history PhD) observes that when humanists have “tried to explain why they exist, the result is a train wreck of desperate rationalizations, clichés, and circular reasoning.” “The wooly mammoth in the room,” Frank argues, is financial: given the cost of higher education all disciplines have to make a value proposition for what we do and what our students learn. Frank ends with a plea to humanists to stop propagandizing and start participating in the transformation of higher education.

Perhaps. But as I argued in last month's column, much of the rhetoric on cost-­particularly outside of major research universities-­is a red herring. So let's ask why the "propagandizing" is so ineffective. Quite simply, we are not good enough at communicating the value of what we do. We have failed to frame what our students learn in terms that are meaningful to parents, employers, and other members of our communities. We have not communicated what we mean byhistorical thinking. Most people therefore regard history as what they spend money on and find interesting: stories, re-­enactments, artifacts, and what, as students, they found absolutely stultifying: facts, dates, timelines, the “izations” (urbanization, industrialization, etc.), and the march of progress through textbooks that rarely bother to offer an introduction that explains what historical thinking is. As a result, history is deemed interesting but useless, on the one hand, or so dull that nobody is going to learn it anyway, on the other.

This should not surprise us; the problem goes back to value. Few history departments place a value on work that explicates what we do and why it matters. When was the last time a history department considered advocacy as a significant factor in tenure and promotion? Except for those among our colleagues who explicitly label themselves "public historians," we don't provide any rewards whatsoever for such activity. It has no value as measured by the coin of the realm in the academy.

So what is to be done? The AHA's charter begins our purpose with "the promotion of historical studies." Traditionally, when we regard "advocacy" in this context, we consider the (very effective) work carried out by the AHA in Washington on behalf of access to documents and funding (that is, before massive budget cuts and the passing of Senators Byrd and Kennedy, our two most effective champions on Capitol Hill). We have not thought enough about the AHA as a diverse collection of 14,000 people promoting historical thinking and historical work-­other than in those rare instances when we ask you to send a message to Washington. We have not incorporated into the education of historians the imperative of and the tools for promoting historical thinking in public culture. Our PhD programs neither instruct nor encourage students to be advocates for the discipline. We do not, as UCLA history department chair David Myers observed in a recent email message, teach our students to "articulate with passion and conviction the belief that historical knowledge, depth, and perspective are vital social goods, the absence of which would be damaging, even crippling, in the formation of policy at local and national levels."

The AHA wants to change this. Our Tuning project has stimulated conversation among its participants on the imperatives of thinking intentionally about what we expect our students to learn and how to frame those expectations in terms that are accessible to colleagues in other disciplines, to students, and beyond the academy. Our ongoing efforts to broaden the career horizons of history PhDs recognize that the more we can help our graduate students to understand what Professor Myers calls our "public mission as scholars," the more we will provide them with the intellectual and professional wherewithal necessary for a truly "malleable PhD."

The AHA's redesigned web site has a space designated "advocacy," where we will provide links to all of the passionate, informed, and diverse explications of the value of history that we hope our members will publish. Most of our members are writers and teachers, some within institutions that grant degrees and diplomas, and many others in a wide range of environments where people learn about the past. 

You are better situated than anyone to help us to explain to different publics what historical thinking is and why historical work is essential to public culture, to global competitiveness, to political and economic vitality, or to any other aspect of public (or even private) life that you consider important.  Write.  Submit.  And then send us the link.

— is the AHA's executive director. 

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