On Sunday, in my weekly “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” post, I linked to Professor Patricia Limerick’s response to Nicholas Kristof’s February 2015 New York Times column, “Professors, We Need You!” If you read this blog, you know that I have done several posts on the topic. (You can read them here and here and here ). In the end I argued, contra to most of my colleagues in academia, that when Kristof’s chides academics for staying in their ivory towers, writing jargon-filled prose, and not engaging more fully with public audiences, he is basically correct.
I appreciate what Professor Limerick is trying to do in her call for American historians to send her examples of historians engaging people outside the classroom. In responding to critics such as Nicholas Kristof who contend that that most academic work is irrelevant, she rightly asserts that historians engage the public far more than most people know, “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”
Doubtlessly, thousands of professional historians could give abundant examples of all or most of the above. But when and if Limerick tabulates their responses, her project will signify little or nothing. For the problem is not that historians don’t reach out to the public—the problem is that such effort is essentially pro bono—the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities. The fact that such endeavors go on at all warms my one-point Calvinist heart (total depravity in case you’re wondering).
Ask yourself: How many historians are awarded tenure, promoted, or find employment at a more prestigious university by “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”?
In a sense, Limerick’s project resembles the conservative contention that massive inequities in wealth distribution can be alleviated through charity rather than the imposition of progressive taxation (yes, I realize I just made a completely implausible analogy between historians and the wealthy, but bear with me). At issue is not the individuals in the system or their character; it is the system itself. And bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with public and ten thousand testimonials to the essential decency of most professional historians will change nothing.
We should be far less concerned with giving “aid, comfort, and affirmation to our critics” and far more concerned with advocating the creation of institutional means that will encourage and reward professional historians’ engagement with the public.