Publication Date

April 27, 2015

History is in a state of crisis, losing readers and public influence, historians David Armitage of Harvard and Jo Guldi of Brown argue in their controversial book The History Manifesto. The main reason, the authors argue, is “short-termism,” historians’ emphasis on focused studies of short time periods. They believe that what is needed instead is a “return to the longue durée,” to studies that offer larger narratives to help the public and policy makers make sense of society’s biggest questions.

Both claims have been questioned in the recent AHRExchange. At a seminar in Washington, DC, last week, co-sponsored by the AHA’s National History Center and the Woodrow Wilson Center, Armitage and Guldi made clear that their aspiration was less to condemn than to encourage historians to do more. They described themselves as boosters for the profession, but critical ones, worried about how to make the discipline relevant at a time when undergraduate students and the broader public are questioning the value of the liberal arts. They believe that the public is, as Professor Armitage put it, “genuinely hungry” for the kind of knowledge historians offer.

Armitage and Guldi are, of course, not the only people worried about the waning public influence—and relevance—of historians. New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristoff famously recently wrote that the public desperately needs professors to share their knowledge, but “that PhD programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience.” Professor Guldi’s colleague Gordon Wood, reflecting on his own field of early American history, recently concluded that historians “have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege” to the point that “the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no PhDs and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.”

All of these concerns were in the background of the conversation at the Wilson Center, and all three respondents focused less on Armitage and Guldi’s data than the broader question of how and why historians might be more involved with public conversations.

The most critical assessment came from George Washington University’s Eric Arnesen, who claimed that Armitage and Guldi underestimated historians’ effort to engage the public. He spoke of the many historians who work in government. He praised historians’ efforts to produce websites. He noted that historians are found regularly in the media. As co-chair of the Washington History Seminar, he has been involved in bringing historians and policy makers together. It is not for want of trying that historians have not had more influence, Arnesen believes, but instead “broader changes in our culture”—in publishing, reading habits, etc. We must acknowledge what historians “are up against.”

Georgetown’s John McNeill also asked whether it would take more than longue durée policy-relevant narratives for historians “to elbow … into the corridors of power.” Both Arnesen and McNeill worried that efforts to orient history to the reading public might require, in Professor McNeill’s words, a negative tradeoff between “complexity and influence.”

George Mason University’s Rosemarie Zagarri agreed with Armitage and Guldi that historians sometimes “lapse into antiquarianism,” but, like her other panelists, she urged more attention to the world beyond the profession, to recognizing that all the blame need not be placed on historians, that there is a broader “battle” over “the sources of intellectual authority in public life.”

Yet, Zagarri continued, she was not convinced that historians, doing their daily work, have not had an impact. Rejecting Wood’s conclusion, she argued that it was precisely because early American historians have transformed our understanding of the American founding that they have influenced public conversations. Today, the American Revolution and early Republic cannot be understood without accounting for Native Americans, enslaved African Americans, women, and ordinary people. There is a new narrative, and that narrative has changed Americans’ self-understanding, spurring intense public conversations, as can be seen in the “new history wars” over revised AP history standards. Yes, historians should care about relevance, but their impact is often “indirect.” “What is needed,” she concluded, “is for historians to do what they do best.”

Underlying the entire conversation was a tension between the two purposes of history, the philosophical or scientific, and the civic. The philosophical or scientific perspective considers the pursuit of historical truth to be of highest value. Like any organized scientific activity, historical research is corrupted when oriented to immediate public ends. Its public value ultimately depends on its autonomy.

The civic purpose of history, on the other hand, is to help a community—a nation, a religious or ethnic group—understand the present in ways that orient that group to the future. The questions asked, and the answers offered, will be ones relevant to the community at large rather than a scholarly community of inquiry.

We need both; in fact the civic depends on the scientific if history is to avoid becoming propaganda or having the preferences of the reading public drive the discipline’s priorities. Before historians can engage the public, they need good knowledge, and thus basic research.

Yet the value of basic research depends in part on it being taken up by a broader public, of it being ready at hand to answer questions as they arise. We live in a society that not only hungers but needs historical perspective. We need scholars who can marshal the discipline’s hard-earned knowledge, embodied in monographs and journal articles, in ways that impact public deliberation.

And that, ultimately, is what Armitage and Guldi are asking of their fellow historians.

, associate professor of history at Western Washington University, is a visiting faculty fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture at the University of Virginia. He is author of “American History in a Global Age,” which makes a case for the importance of national history in a democracy.

This post first appeared on AHA Today.

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