Thursday, January 29, 2015

Turning on the Microphone

Historians have a lot to contribute to the “public sphere” and this website is simply the latest evidence of that well-established fact. A recent article in the New York Times noted that historians are the second most influential group of professionals in public policy issues. 

Writing about the role of historians in the public square, New York University history professor Thomas Bender once opined: “Perhaps our aspirations are misplaced. Must we publish an op-ed in the New York Times, be interviewed on CNN or Bloomberg News, or have our books reviewed on scores of channels and blogs? Is there a national public sphere? Is it in material space or is it digital? Is it bounded? Global? National? Local?

Bender defines the challenge for many in the historical profession who have turned inward: “Our challenge, as I have tried to indicate, is double: we need to work differently as historians and enter the public sphere in ways that connect with the public, with such relevant knowledge as we may possess.”  
Here I am, during a trip to Crown Point, Ind.

Historian Ernst Breisach has noted that Greek historians never viewed history “as primarily a reconstruction of the past for the sake of truth or intellectual curiosity but always as endeavor with a purpose.”  More specifically, Breisach noted that the purpose of historical knowledge in Homer’s time was to “inspire and teach” and, on occasion, entertain with such epics as the Iliad and The Odyssey. Thousands of years later, those concepts -- inspire, teach, even entertainment -- still have a role to play for professional historians in the public square.

Satisfying the entertainment needs of the general public is not the priority of professional historians, however. The stakes for professional historians are much higher in the face of what can easily occur to the profession when governments attempt to shut down freedom of thought.  Whether it is in Latin America, the Soviet Union, China, or Nazi Germany, the history of totalitarian regimes has not always favored historians.  As Don Page once aptly observed,

It is my contention that unless public historians of all nationalities, and their friends, stand for the preservation of historical truth, the past could easily be contracted into a few records and rationalizations that serve only Big Brother or the interests of those presently in power.
Nonetheless, in What is History? E.H. Carr argues that a historian’s work is considered useful in a two-fold manner. First, the study of the past should inform our understanding of the present. Secondly, the study of the past should offer knowledge that society could do something with -- namely, shape our future. Although Carr’s argued for the use of historical research to shape public policy, he was wrong to be so easily dismissive of the “the little guy.” He put too much emphasis on only “the big battalions.”  

While avoiding that error, Two Histories will also avoid promoting the idea all-too American idea that only what is practical matters.  Historian William E. Leuchtenburg would part company with such thinking if one demands we insert the adjective “only” into those perspectives: “Those who insist that history is worthwhile only when it offers solutions to current problems reveal a hostility to the very nature of the historical enterprise (emphasis mine).” 

Nonetheless, Leuchtenburg argues that historians can fall into two extremes as it relates to the public arena. One extreme would be for historians to shut themselves up in ivory towers, writing and talking only to themselves -- in small-circulation journals, for example -- and, as  Leuchtenburg notes, “denying the practical world the benefit of academic knowledge and thought.” The other extreme is a desire to want to shape public policy so badly, the historian actually ends up being wrong, to the detriment of his career and to the public good. Leuchtenburg’s examples include historians who sanctioned the institutions of white supremacy that emerged out of Reconstruction and historians who were apologists for Stalin’s despotic regime. As Richard Hofstadter said about Charles Beard: “Any man who makes written commitments year after year on difficult public questions will live to find some of his views evanescent and embarrassing.” And Leuchtenburg cautions: “History teaches us that the future is full of surprises and outwits all our certitudes.” Historians should play in a role in public life as long people understand that history isn’t an exact science and historians aren’t seers.

In other words, historians, like journalists, make poor prophets.

To be sure, historians are not agonizing over whether or not they should be a vital part of the public arena. Historians can do engage in the public sphere, many in creative, new ways. Historians can influence decision-making in all aspects of government -- the Supreme Court, the executive branch, state government, even the military. They can appeal to the broader public with newspaper commentaries, blogs, appearing in documentaries and advising Hollywood.  None of this access guarantees the historian’s perspective will be the final word, but the potential to influence is real.

Two Histories is for academics and non-academics alike, but this won’t be a one-way conversation.  Readers are strongly encouraged to offer constructive feedback in the comments section, filling in any gaps which you may find as you read along in the weeks and months to come.

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