Publication Date

March 1, 1997


Public History

Should we all become public historians? I advance this as a serious proposition because of the challenges that confront us in 1997 and for the foreseeable future.

I realize in saying this that public history already has ranged under it a number of specific careers. There are those who interpret historical exhibits for the National Park Service or provide research and writing for official bodies such as the Air Force or the Senate. There are professional historians working in archives and libraries as well as in records management. There are a couple of city historians in the country and many more historians in state and local historical societies, not to mention the important work of historic preservation and curriculum development. Historians abound in the nation's museums and art galleries. All of these jobs illuminate the close connection between historical scholarship and the public realm, but I have in mind something else.

We all need to bear witness to our shared commitment to historical scholarship because the public has a great impact on our work and not nearly enough knowledge to form sound opinions about its importance or its quality. The many controversies of the past six years that began with the commemoration of the 1992 Columbus quincentenary have demonstrated this fact, and the disputes are continuing unabated.

On January 8, the Wall Street Journal ran an editorial criticizing the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History for seeking a curator of its armed forces exhibition who could interpret “the culture of the military” rather than stick to traditional displays of military insignia, colors, weapons, and uniforms. Nothing if not direct, the Journal editorial deplored curators who want to provide “intellectual leadership” or take seriously the museum’s “mission of interpreting American culture.” The editorial cited a leaked memo that claimed the American public only wanted traditional military exhibits.

These issues are not going to disappear. In fact, we can thank the brouhaha over the presentation of the American past for arousing interest in our subject. History has become a hot topic. Now that we have the public's attention, what are we going to do with it? A time-consuming, work-diverting, ego-deflating way to recognize the former and address the latter is to seek every possible opportunity to talk to a nonhistorian—even better, to lots of nonhistorians at once through public speeches, appearances on television, talks on radio, and writing newspaper articles and letters—about how history is produced. As the pages of Perspectives abundantly detail, many of you have been reaching out to ever-larger audiences for some time.

I can think of two other areas where the quality of history and public decisionmaking converge to form an important role for us to play. As governors and state departments of education move to adopt standards for K–12 history instruction, we should make every effort to find out about their content. The AHA has written officials in every state, offering the Association's help in creating or assessing standards. We hope some states will take us up on the offer. But all politics is local, so it is even more important that the historians working within the state follow these developments. It would be wonderful if this movement prompted local collaboratives among history teachers at all levels, something that the National History Education Network (NHEN) is promoting. (Those interested should get in touch with NHEN Executive Director Loretta Lobes at Carnegie Mellon University.)

Another more complicated area is that of the use of adjunct instructors. Adjuncts are contributing excellent instruction throughout the country, but they need our active support to improve the conditions under which they teach if they are to continue to teach well. It is time we all became familiar with the terms of their employment. If the pay is so low that adjuncts must take many jobs to gain a living salary, it is not possible to maintain high standards. Adjuncts rarely get medical benefits or support for their own learning and research. In many schools, they receive neither pay nor a place for holding office hours. Students also suffer in this situation.

In an era in which the market serves to justify most decisions, school boards and administrators take advantage of the abundance of not fully employed historians to exploit them. This problem has been around for a long time, but the more recent trend toward permanent downsizing in history departments suggests that we should no longer consider the heavy use of adjuncts as the response to a transient job crisis. Reliance upon adjuncts for 25 to 30 percent of most college history instruction is probably here to stay. If we are serious about our commitment to history teaching, it is time for all of us to make simple inquiries about adjunct employment in our area. As with standards, our biggest impact can be local.

We can do a surprising amount of informal teaching by engaging our friends and family in conversations about history-now that history is a newsworthy topic. We are all aware of the amazing riches of scholarship produced in the past four decades. We now know an amazing amount about women in the past, about the poor, and about the marginalized because scholars asked questions that had never been asked before, which were led to records and traces that they then turned into evidence. People accept, even relish, this relation of knowledge to inquiry in the sciences, but, as the Wall Street Journal editorial suggests, they suspect that something is amiss when historians ask questions and offer interpretations.

To call something revisionist history is tantamount to saying that it is made-up history. Yet no one would characterize new findings in chemistry as revisionist chemistry. Part of the reason for this divergence is that there is a pervasive popular opinion that somehow the past lingers on to force the hand of those who reconstruct it. To insist that historical knowledge begins with someone's questions destroys that illusion.

Also there is the issue of nostalgia. Few people are nostalgic about their biology lessons. Not so about what they have learned about the past. Rather, those accounts are indelibly inscribed. To pick up your child's textbook and discover material unknown in your own time is often a dizzying experience. The best antidote for this intellectual vertigo is to have a better grasp of how historians go about creating historical scholarship in the first place. And all of us can supply this relief.

I would like to hear what you think about my proposition that we should all become public-minded historians. You can reach me by e-mail at

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