On Historians, Public Debate, and Journalists

hofstadter

The days of Richard Hofstadter are over

Last week The Chronicle of Higher Education published an interview with Harvard University historian Jill Lepore. We posted about it here.  During the course of the interview, Lepore said:

The academy is largely itself responsible for its own peril. The retreat of humanists from public life has had enormous consequences for the prestige of humanistic ways of knowing and understanding the world.

Universities have also been complicit in letting sources of federal government funding set the intellectual agenda. The size and growth of majors follows the size of budgets, and unsurprisingly so. After World War II, the demands of the national security state greatly influenced the exciting fields of study. Federal-government funding is still crucial, but now there’s a lot of corporate money. Whole realms of knowing are being brought to the university through commerce.

I don’t expect the university to be a pure place, but there are questions that need to be asked. If we have a public culture that suffers for lack of ability to comprehend other human beings, we shouldn’t be surprised. The resources of institutions of higher learning have gone to teaching students how to engineer problems rather than speak to people.

When Lepore laments the lack of public engagement among historians, I imagine that she wants historians to write for popular publications such as The New Yorker, The Atlantic, or The New York Review of Books  Or perhaps she means writing books with trade presses.

Thomas Sugrue, a Professor of History and the Director of the New York University Collaborative on Global Urbanism, whipped-off a series of tweets in response to Lepore’s article.  I have included these tweets below.  Since I have mixed feelings about these tweets, I have decided to comment on some of them.

I don’t hold an academic appointment that most in the academy would consider prestigious, so I am not sure how many folks listen to me or take me seriously, but I have been preaching about the need for historians to engage the public for more than a decade.

I think Sugrue is correct.  Lepore’s criticism of historians staying in the ivory tower and not writing for the public is not as strong as it was a decade ago.  But what counts as public engagement?  It seems that Lepore and Sugrue are in general agreement that public engagement is primarily about writing in magazines that have very little readership beyond a well-educated, urban class that either live in blue states or aspire to live in blue states.

Moreover, those who publish pieces in The Washington Post and New York Times usually write for online audiences.  Most Americans do not search for these kinds of pieces in the online versions of national newspapers.  The thinking classes usually learn about these pieces through social media–usually Facebook and Twitter.  As a result, pieces in the Post or the Times circulate among the proverbial choir.  Is this really shaping public debate?

I agree.  The Internet has enabled this.

Yes.  I appreciate Zelizer on this front.  He is engaging a much wider audience every Saturday on CNN.

This is all well and good, but all of Sugrue’s examples here are historians shaping public debate by, for the most part, preaching to the choir.  I don’t want to be unfair to Sugrue because I largely agree with him on most of these tweets, but some of us do not live in a world where a well-targeted op-ed or a review in the LA Review of Books is going to be read.  The people I encounter every day in American evangelicalism or in south-central Pennsylvania do not usually read The Atlantic or The New Yorker.  They don’t see these magazines shaping public debate in their neighborhoods and towns.

I live in a world where we need to defend the very idea that historians have something to offer public life.  The people I know need to be convinced that history is important.  They do not breathe the rarefied intellectual air that Sugrue and Lepore breathe.

While I have published pieces in The AtlanticThe Washington Post, and other places that Sugrue or Lepore might deem worthy of a historian-public intellectual, I am convinced that we need more than this. I want to push for a deeper, even more engaged, public witness.  We need public historians laboring tirelessly to present the past to visitors in small museums. We need historians making cases, in their own backyards, for why these small museums need funding.  We need historians to earn trust among audiences through public lectures (reading papers in public venues are not public lectures) and face-to-face conversations about their books.  We need historians willing to educate college presidents and boards on the importance of the humanities. We need historians to build communities through blogs and social media. (Kevin Kruse is a great example here, but most of his audience represent one political/ideological perspective).  We need to work with teachers and make connections with local school districts.  We need historians teaching Sunday School.  We need to embrace the opportunity to teach large survey classes that put us in front of young men and women who need to see the importance of the past for their work in the worlds of business, engineering, and health care.  We need to stop thinking about our own ambitions and start using our skills to serve the common good in the places where we live and work.  The age of the superstar historian who speaks to mass culture is over.  Mass culture no longer exists.  We now live in what Daniel Rodgers has called “the age of fracture.”

Finally, we need to abandon the term “public intellectual.”  The only people who care about this moniker are other “public intellectuals” or scholars who aspire to a life as a “public intellectual.”  The phrase invokes a bunch of elite white men sitting around in Greenwich Village writing pieces that the overwhelming majority of Americans do not read.

Instead, perhaps we need to reclaim the public dimension of the term “historian.”

I don’t think Sugrue would disagree with any of this, but if we really want to reach as many people as possible in the age of Trump, we need to have a much more expansive view of public culture.

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