Historians and Public Culture: Widening the Circle of Advocacy
Photo: Amanda Reynolds
Nicholas Kristof’s plea for the return of academics to the arena of public affairs, nine months ago in the New York Times, met with a predictable response: Oh no, sir; we professors are publishing in your newspaper quite prodigiously. One of the authors of this column even spent a few Sundays counting opinion articles in the Times and the Washington Post to prove it. Social media was abuzz with professors pointing to their colleagues’ presence in digital spaces. Kristof had his head in the sand, we claimed.
Kristof was not alone, of course. The Decline of the Public Intellectual has been a trope of academic discourse for at least as long as academics have known that the general public doesn’t respond very well to sentences that include “trope” and “discourse.” We have become too specialized; we write for each other; we speak in tongues. This is all true, though one might argue that the idea of a heyday of public intellectualism from which we are now separated requires a certain degree of romanticism that elides a long tradition of narrow monographic scholarship.
An even longer tradition brings together traders in the commerce of ideas over coffee, although the site has morphed from the exalted coffeehouse to the more mundane coffee shop. Indeed, the coffeehouse occupies a central place in the iconography of public intellectualism, even if a reference to “commerce” elicits groans of horror from many of our colleagues for its implications of the lucre our world is supposed to disdain.
So it was in the coffee shop that the authors of this column recently discussed the imperative of expanding the influence of historians in public culture. After all, one does not have to presume that things were so much better once upon a time to agree that we need to do more.
And historians need to do more. Most (all?) of us believe that historical literacy and curiosity improves the quality of decision making at all levels, from the individual to the highest realms of government and business. We want as many people as possible to incorporate historical thinking and historical knowledge into both their unconscious and intentional habits of mind.
Some say that the problem lies so much in ourselves—professional jargon, historiographical references, prose shaped by a graduate education oriented toward academic publication—that our community needs to incorporate a clan of communicators to translate historical scholarship for the public. It would follow, logically, that this distinct class of communicators should be recognized as a legitimate profession within the discipline. The 2015 annual meeting of the National Council for Public History will include a session (organized by Jason) on the idea of “history communicators.”
The Decline of the Public Intellectual has been a trope of academic discourse for at least as long as academics have known that the general public doesn’t respond very well to sentences that include “trope” and “discourse.”
Such people already exist, of course. They work in classrooms, national parks, museums, and in front of their computer screens, translating historical scholarship into forms of presentation likely to attract and enthuse audiences who are interested in history but who are not part of the professional conversation. Jason’s idea, in organizing this session, was to generate a discussion about how such individuals could be trained in graduate programs and defined within the professional realm of our community of historians.
The premise of a distinct clan, however, carries an implication that, in the course of our conversation, made us uncomfortable: that historians, whether in the academy or working elsewhere, somehow are incapable of communicating their insights to the general public. Framing a role as “history communicators” suggested a one-way process: taking the work of scholars and communicating it to the public. Moreover, to refer to this group of communicators as a class might even nourish professional hierarchies that situate communicating well below the activities relating to creating new knowledge.
Nevertheless, we sometimes seem to need intermediaries, and this part can be played by any historian working in any number of capacities. Perhaps a better term is “history mediator.” History mediators are all around us, occupying a middle position between the creation of new historical knowledge and the relation of that knowledge to the interests and needs of the public and institutions (public and private) in an accessible manner. They act as intermediaries who convey history in a form that connects with various audiences’ desires to understand how and why past events unfolded as they did, how we arrived at where we are today, and how that positions us for the present and the future.
Historians with PhDs and master’s degrees assume these roles daily. People like Jason, whose role at the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress blends administration, blogging, and communications, provide one model for this kind of work. At the core of his job lies mediation—between scholars conducting research at the Library of Congress and the appetite for history among members of Congress, federal policy makers, the media, scholars, and the public. Historians working at the AHA mediate when we connect our colleagues to each other across a staggering variety of workplaces, when we bring historical thinking to policy makers through our advocacy work, and when we serve as listening posts for historians eager to learn what wider audiences are gleaning from our work. Many historians engaged in such work spend little or no time in research that creates new knowledge in the traditional sense, yet through this kind of mediating role they continue to work as historians.
This work is crucial—to our discipline and to civic life. Historical knowledge and historical thinking are essential, not only in classrooms and other spaces inhabited by research scholars, but nearly everywhere. Policy makers cannot enact sensible drug legislation without understanding the history of drug legislation. Community development works best when understood against the backdrop of community history. Family identity is inextricably tied to family heritage. Historians have the capacity to inform and enlighten in all these areas.
Whether or not we formalize the practice of this work with a label such as “history mediators,” it is a central aspect of the work we collectively do as historians. Either way, the opportunities are considerable. Media prospects abound for the historian—and not simply among major media outlets. The pages of the Des Moines Register would benefit just as much from the analysis of a historian as would the New York Times. The explosion of online social media creates numerous other venues: online magazines, blogs, Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, even Pinterest and YouTube. The mediation of history occurs daily in museums, national parks, and heritage sites. It occurs in the classroom. It occurs in books written for broad audiences, as many of our colleagues’ royalty statements can affirm. Historical work that aspires to a role in everyday life ought to be as valued as historical scholarship of everyday life.
James Grossman is the executive director of the AHA (follow at @JimGrossmanAHA). Jason Steinhauer is the program specialist for the John W. Kluge Center at the Library of Congress.
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