Historians in Public

Thomas Bender in Transformations of the Public Sphere:

Bender_Pic The experience of the past few decades has prompted the worry by many historians and social scientists that academic intellect has turned inward, cutting itself off from a role in public life. This is particularly significant for historians. Most of the social sciences claim “expertise” relevant to policy, which is delivered in a variety of non-public settings or distinct “audiences,” mostly governmental or corporate, as opposed to a public. Historians, however, do not claim that type of knowledge, and they generally lack such audiences or clients. Their narratives and interpretations, which are heavily weighted with contingencies and interdependent rather than dependent variables, are somewhat unwieldy and harder to package as “expertise.” Rather than finely tuned expertise for specific audiences, historians offer broad interpretations, often at a macro level, to a diverse public.

The chronic shortage of academic positions since the 1970s has stimulated a search for a more focused public role, and many historians have taken the title of “public historian.” They work outside of academe, and speak from museums, historical societies, national parks, and various community organizations. In a sense the designation “public” before “historian” or “intellectuals” is redundant.[1] As Émile Zola declaimed, the intellectual is by definition a public actor; moreover, all professions, including the academic ones, claim a public aspect by definition to justify their privileges of incorporation and self-regulation. That this linguistic and definitional problem confusion is rarely noticed may be an indicator of the narrowing of professional aspiration and responsibility among historians as well as a sense of isolation, feeling of impotence, and, perhaps, irrelevance. Such was not the case in the beginning.

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