Historian Thomas Sugrue on Public Thinking

Sugrue

Over at Public Books, University of Chicago historian Destin Jenkins interviews New York University historian Thomas Sugrue about his work as a public scholar.  Here is a taste the interview:

DJ: We could talk shop all day. How and why did you decide to communicate this history with the public?

TJS: Throughout my career, I have chosen topics that have contemporary relevance. I don’t see a bright line between past and present. When I was in graduate school, one of the harshest criticisms you could level against a historian was that he or she was a presentist. Somehow our historical scholarship would be compromised by our engagement with the world that we live in now. I’ve never found this argument to be persuasive. It’s a fallacy to see the present as somehow uprooted from history. The opportunities and constraints that we experience in the here and now are the result of historical processes.

I also don’t draw a bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy. I think those of us who have the skills to write clearly should exercise those skills. We should try to reach beyond a couple hundred specialists in our scholarly subfields.

DJ: You said there’s no bright line between scholarly work and public advocacy, but is the process different? Is the process of writing an article or book chapter different from writing op-eds? Walk us through the mechanics.

TJS: When you write an op-ed for the New York Times or the Washington Post, you might have 750 or 800 words. You have to take a lot of complex material and boil it down to its essence. That requires making really hard choices about what’s in and what’s out. We historians love detail. We love the specifics, but when you’re writing short, popular pieces, you’ve got to let a lot of that detail fall by the wayside.

Some would say that it’s dangerous to simplify complex arguments, but I think it can be done well. The key is to be faithful to the substance of your argument even if you’re leaving a lot of the evidence out. Readers who want to know more can find my articles online or go to their local library or bookstore and pick up a copy of one of my books.

DJ: What have been some of the other ways you’ve shown up as a public thinker?

TJS: I have been asked to be an expert witness in a number of civil rights cases. That requires another type of writing. I’m an archive hound. I’m really rigorous. I try to leave no statement that I make in a book or a scholarly article unsupported. I try to turn over every last stone. The burden of proof, already high, is even greater when you are engaged in research for a legal case, because your work is going to be used in an adversarial process. I go through every word, every footnote, and make sure everything is absolutely precise. I know my work is going to be subjected to close scrutiny by lawyers who want to demolish my credibility.

Another way in which I engage different audiences is through public speaking. I’ve given hundreds of talks and workshops and lectures, not only at colleges and universities, but also to community organizations, museums, religious congregations, and foundations. I once even gave a keynote at a chamber of commerce event, because that audience needed to be exposed, more than most, to scholarship on race and inequality. I speak to people who agree with me, but also to people who don’t.

Read the entire interview here.

Back in 2014, I offered my two cents on public scholarship in a 9-part video series published on YouTube as part of the old Virtual Office Hours.  Here is episode 1:

 

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.

Tweet Thread of the Day: The Historiography of American Conservatism

Buckley and Reagan

Last weekend Politico published historian Geoffrey Kabaservice‘s piece “Liberals Don’t Know Much About Conservative History.”

Kabaservice writes:

The end-of-century victories of Ronald Reagan and Newt Gingrich, however, forced historians to realize that conservatism could no longer be dismissed as a mere road bump on the inexorable progression toward a liberal future. The result, over the past two decades, has been a veritable tsunami of historical literature on conservatism. Virtually all of these works have been written by liberals. Nonetheless, historians of this new generation consider themselves to be unbiased and even sympathetic observers of conservatism. Many believe their collective efforts have produced a profound historical understanding of conservatism as an intellectual and cultural phenomenon, and thus contributed in some measure to bringing politically opposed citizens together.

Color me skeptical. I was a graduate student at the beginning of this new wave of conservative studies and I couldn’t help but notice that it coincided with the historical profession’s purge of any scholars who could be described as Republicans or conservatives. Some of the new works on conservatism have been excellent, others awful. But nearly all reveal the pitfalls for liberals writing about a movement with which they have no personal experience. If you’re a historian who has not a single conservative colleague—and perhaps not even one conservative friend—chances are you’ll approach conservatism as anthropologists once approached tribes they considered remote, exotic, and quite possibly dangerous.

The result is that two decades’ worth of scholarship hasn’t contributed as much as one might have hoped to our understanding of conservatism, especially in the age of Trump. This is particularly true of the works that have been most popular with the broader public. That’s a shame, because historians could provide deeper answers than they have so far to the questions many citizens now wrestle with: How did our political system become so divided and dysfunctional? To what extent is the conservative movement responsible for Trump’s rise? What have been the movement’s greatest successes as well as failures, and what relevance do they have to our understanding of ourselves as a nation and a people?

Thomas Sugrue, Director of American Studies at New York University responded to Kabaservice’s piece in a very informative Twitter thread.  Graduate students and advanced undergrads interested in American conservatism should read this thread.  Here it is: