Publication Date

March 1, 2012

Perspectives Section

From the President

AHA Topic

Teaching & Learning


Public History

One of the paradoxes of history is that no other academic discipline has done a better job of retaining a large public audience—even though many nonhistorians find most academic history boring in the extreme. If one takes as rough-and-ready measures of public interest the allocation of topics among History Channel programs, museum exhibitions that draw large crowds, or books that make it onto best-seller lists, the distribution of subjects they cover is generally quite different from specialties represented by the faculties of history departments at most colleges and universities. When one also acknowledges that many of history’s most popular interpreters lack graduate training in the subject—think here of Barbara Tuchman, David McCullough, Ken Burns, Robert Massie, Dava Sobel, or even past AHA President Allan Nevins—the complicated relationship of professional history to its public audiences becomes all the more intriguing.

I doubt that I need to defend the virtues of professional scholarship to members of the American Historical Association, which is, after all, the largest organization of professional historians in the world. As I type that sentence, though, I’m mindful that not all AHA members would necessarily choose the label “professional historian” as their own primary self-description, and that is part of the problem I want to discuss here. Is a high school history teacher a “professional historian”? Is a writer of high-quality popular histories? A producer of historical documentaries? A curator of historical exhibitions? A designer of historical web sites? For myself, I would answer with a vigorously enthusiastic “yes” to every one of these questions, but I’m not sure all my colleagues would do the same—not even some of the people whose professional practice of history places them in one of the groups I’ve just named.

I’d go further still. If the AHA isn’t unambiguously a welcoming home for everyone who practices serious history, we should worry that there’s something about our conception of “professional history” that is getting between ourselves—those of us who embrace this label—and those who don’t feel fully accepted as “professionals” even if they earn their living by exploring and interpreting the past. This has in fact been a longstanding source of tension for the AHA. Almost everyone affirms that the organization does a good job of representing “professional historians” who work in academe and produce historical monographs. But it has had to work much harder, with greater uncertainty, to determine how best to serve the interests of those “professional historians” whose work in other settings expresses itself in quite different ways. Although the digital revolution compounds this problem, it is hardly new.

When one defines professional history according to the norms of the academy, certain attributes tend to be valued above most others in defining what counts as “good history”—which is to say, history that professional historians recognize as “good.” Good history is accurate. Professionals work extraordinarily hard to avoid errors, and can be quite contemptuous of those who make foolish mistakes when describing the past. Getting facts right generally trumps good storytelling. Good history is rigorous in its argumentation, deeply grounded in archival sources, fully in dialogue with the best recent work by leading scholars, and richly nuanced in its interpretative claims. The best professional historians spend years of their lives immersing themselves in the primary and secondary sources of their chosen subjects with the goal of attaining such a complex understanding that only scholars comparably immersed will recognize just how well the resulting work of history reflects the past it interprets. If such history is also written with elegance and grace, then it is very good indeed.

I would never make light of these virtues, for I have spent my entire life celebrating them. Like most members of my profession, I hold them dear. But having lived with them for so long, I also recognize that—like all human virtues—they are joined at the hip with certain vices that are not quite so admirable. Although professional historians rightly pride themselves for using ordinary language to communicate their findings, eschewing the neologisms and technical jargon so common in other disciplines, they cannot escape the challenge all professionals face when communicating subtly shared understandings to colleagues. When historians use seemingly ordinary words like “agency” or “contingency” or even “document,” they imply worlds of meaning that most nonprofessionals will barely even notice are being invoked. The more historians resort to such language, the more inaccessible their work becomes to nonprofessionals, a problem that is often compounded by the linguistic obscurities that inhere in times and places unfamiliar to the lay public.

Some of these challenges derive from precisely those immersive practices that we often celebrate as the core of “good history.” The more one learns about a time and place that few others know, the more one’s head is filled with people and events that will be quite foreign to anyone who hasn’t explored the same ground. Under such circumstances, one hungers for conversation with others who are also striving to understand the same subject. So, like all professionals, we seek out those who share our expertise in hope of finding intellectual dialogue and camaraderie. An essential role of organizations like AHA is to foster the settings and occasions when such dialogue can most fruitfully occur.

And yet: in this act of gathering to talk with those who share our passions, professional historians—again, like all professionals—run the risk of failing to notice the absence of those who don’t feel welcome in the conversation. Although one of the great virtues of history among academic disciplines has been its relative openness to scholars trained in other fields, it still unavoidably has some of the attributes of a guild. Professional historians keep track of each other’s work, compete with each other in complex status hierarchies, belong to social networks that require great effort to join, and engage in critical dialogues that often grow ever more technical and self-referential the more vigorous (and sometimes pedantic) they become. Before long, even colleagues with PhDs in other disciplines have no idea what we’re talking about or why it matters. Worse still, because history involves so many subfields dealing with so many times and places, even most of our colleagues in history share this confusion more than we’re typically willing to admit.

All these tendencies derive from the virtues of “good history” as defined by the academy, and all run the risk of separating professional history from its publics—indeed, separating us from each other. Not to put too fine a point on it, but professional history all too easily becomes boring for everyone beyond the small circle who understands what the professionals are talking about.

Given the immense public appetite for history, and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of “professional history” could not be more clear.

This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch onboredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let’s ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.

This is also why professional historians who work in the academy should be immensely grateful when they are joined in an organization like the AHA by professional historians who make documentaries, design web sites, post blogs, curate exhibits, teach school, and publish popular books. Only if we all gather together under the same big tent will we be able to learn from each other the ways good history can be more effective in reaching the many audiences that hunger for its insights. Forty million people watched Ken Burns’s documentaries on The Civil War. Barbara Tuchman probably influenced more people’s understanding of the First World War than any other historian of her generation. Public school teachers shape the historical consciousness of many millions more students (and citizens) than college teachers ever will. And so on and on.

How do we avoid professional boredom? By making sure we don’t define “professional” too narrowly. By not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history. By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.

And: by never forgetting that our first and most important job—the one on which all others depend—is to make the past come alive for nonprofessionals who would otherwise find it dry, dead, . . . and boring.

William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.

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William Cronon
William Cronon

University of Wisconsin–Madison