In the past few decades, professional historians have been in decline in the United States. Historians, professional organizations, and even non-historians have spent a great deal of time wringing their hands and kvetching about this decline. 

Historian Gordon Wood identified the discord between the writers of popular history and academic history. Historical monographs pour from university presses at the rate of more than one thousand per year. Yet, without library purchases, the sales are dismal. Yet popular histories, written by journalists and other researchers, are incredibly popular. People want to read history, just not history written by academic historians.

If David MuCullough, Candice Millard, and other popular historians sell hundreds of thousands of history books, why can’t the academic historians write better, more readable, more accessible history? But, according to Wood, historians have not forgotten how to tell a story. In fact, most historians choose not to write stories or narrative histories. Instead, academic historians have written analytic history, which specializes in narrowly focused monographs, often based on their PhD dissertations. Such specific work aims to solve the problems that previous historians have exposed, or to resolve discrepancies between historical accounts, or surveying and putting together what other historians have done. They find mistakes, openings, or niches to correct, fill in, or add to. This work is not insignificant. It is only through specialized studies that the collective effort of the discipline of history expands our knowledge of the past. However, working toward elusive objectivity, that noble dream of nineteenth century historians, means that academic history will create a limited readership. Monographs build upon each other and assume prior specialized knowledge that allows historians to participate in larger conversations and debates. This is why most historical monographs are difficult for general readers to read.

The term ‘public history’ also weighs in to a discussion of academic and popular history. As a basic definition, public history refers to history outside of the classroom. History is the only discipline to which the adjective ‘public’ is attached without being “redundant or oxymoronic.” After all, could the term “public physics” or “public literary criticism” exist? According to professional (and public) historian, Douglas Greenberg, “no field of knowledge has been so scrupulously, so tortuously self-conscious as history, and no branch of historical study has been so simultaneously absorbed by and dismissive of public concerns as American history.” Greenberg goes on to assert “as colleagues with a shared passion for the study of the past, all historians should be just a little ashamed even to use the term public history as we do: to differentiate the historian’s private responsibilities to the world of scholarship and teaching from his or her responsibilities to the world beyond the academy.” Ouch.

The relationship between the public and the discipline of history can be summarized this way: they “despise each other in about equal measures.” Americans see the discipline of history as a luxury because they perceive the academic study of history as “distant, irrelevant, and, worst of all, unreadable.” Historian Joyce Appleby observed that history is the only field of knowledge where “the description ‘revisionist’ is an epithet.” No one would condemn “revisionist chemistry,” because in the sciences and social sciences, it is understood that our knowledge grows and more accurately mirrors the world over time.

On the other hand, there is clearly a genuine interest in history by the American public. Books on the Civil War are always big sellers and the history attractions at Disneyland and Disney World are some of the most popular. Popular writers such as David McCullough and Stephen Ambrose are bestselling writers of popular history and the documentarian Ken Burns has become an American icon. History has powerful appeal, despite the abandonment of commitment to historical institutions and the academic study of history in the United States. Disney believes that history sells and people care about the past and want to know about it. What is it that Disney is able to do that the Chicago Historical Society is not doing? What is the appeal of Ken Burns films? Why do both attract a large audience when historians and historical institutions are struggling for survival? The public seems to be more connected to history that includes sentiment and nostalgia, and “the ability to communicate the emotive power of the past,” even if the underlying scholarship is far from robust.

For Greenberg, the issue is largely the fault of academic historians. The public’s lack of interest in the academic study of history is “a consequence of our inability to speak eloquently to the public about the value of what we do.” Yet Greenberg also sees a solution:
“Public historians and academic historians alike who wish to reach a larger and broader audience must heed this fact, even if they do not populate their work with animatronic figures and banjo music. We all know how powerful the emotional grip of the past can be, and institutions like historical societies and museums contain artifacts that have an amazing emotive power of their own because they are real. To say that we need to exploit that power in order to communicate more effective with the public is not to abandon our scholarly obligations; it is rather to vindicate them.”

So how can academic historians make their work simultaneously engaging and of high scholarly quality? I wonder if Christian historians can model a better way to bridge the wide divisions between the popular history consumed by Americans and the thoughtful methodical and well-cited research of academic historians. Through practice of the spiritual discipline of hospitality, Christian historians are better equipped to engage the wider public because they invite ‘the stranger,’ and the ‘other’ to converse in deep and meaningful ways about history and the historical approach.

Douglas Greenberg, “History is a Luxury: Mrs. Thatcher, Mr. Disney, and (Public) History,” Reviews in American History, Vol. 26, No.1, The Challenge of American History, (March, 1998), 294-311.

Gordon Wood, “In Defense of Academic History Writing,” Perspectives on History, Publication of the American Historical Association, April 2010.  

Rebecca Koerselman

Rebecca Koerselman teaches history at Northwestern College in Orange City, IA.

7 Comments

  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Very stimulating. Say more next time about how hospitality as an academic virtue might work in history.

  • Scott Hoezee says:

    Very nice post, Rebecca. As a consumer of popular histories–as well as of biographies, popular or otherwise–I resonate with your thought that professional historians need to remember how to tell a story. Candice Millard does, as demonstrated in her fine book about James Garfield. (She also can get onto “Fresh Air” with Terri Gross, which is where I heard of her Garfield book and so put it on my Christmas list a few years ago!) But McCullough, Kearns Goodwin, Millard, and Chernow know how to bring historical figures to life as full-orbed people whose stories then get told in ways that are–to my limited historical mind–both robust academically and gripping on a sheerly human, emotive level. (Just watch Doris Kearns Goodwin on “Meet the Press” and notice how her every historical reference almost always begins with “Teddy Roosevelt used to say . . . Lyndon Johnson used to say . . .” followed by a very relatable quote that humanizes the person while still making an historical point.) Chernow’s doorstop of a book on Grant is eminently readable start to finish as it narrates a compelling story all throughout. You are certainly correct: this need not be an either-or.

  • Pam Adams says:

    Rebecca,
    I feel good about finishing Alexander Hamilton and Le Miserables. They are what the every day reader needs from history. Thank you for letting me know of the other issues in writing history. I hope the popular books are accurate and of course well written.

  • Thank you again, Rebecca, for your fine writing. As an amateur historian, I love reading history (especially the Civil War era) and wish that I had your historical knowledge.

  • James Hart Brumm says:

    I would like to push back a bit on the generalizations in your premise, Rebecca. Yes, there are historians–and, dare I say, linguists, physicists, liturgical scholars, homileticists, theologians, and others–who are pompous, snobbish, and overbearing, and whose writing cannot get out of its own way. There are also technical pieces, in many disciplines, that really are meant primarily to be read by other scholars, and they shouldn’t be foisted upon those who live outside the discipline. But there are any number of us who are working hard to produce responsible scholarship in an accessible format. Most (not all) of *The Historical Series of the Reformed Church in America* (HSRCA) is accessible to general readers and written in an engaging manner. Part of my job at New Brunswick Seminary is to create programs which are academically responsible while also being engaging.

    Yet there is a built-in assumption in much of society that, if one doesn’t have animatronics and banjos, what one will present is automatically boring. What’s fascinating about that is that, even after people have sampled something and enjoyed it, they assume it is a fluke, and so they are unwilling to sample anything else. I cannot count the number of times when, in parish ministry, visitors have come to me after a wedding or funeral or baptism to tell me that, contrary to their expectations, the worship I led was interesting, relevant, accessible, inspiring, not stuffy, etc. I would respond that this is how we do things all the time in my congregation, and invite them to come and see, and they would say something like, “Oh, I can’t do that! Worship is never really like what you did today.”

    Some of us historians are working very hard at being hospitable and academically rigorous. Dip your toe into that water of a program from the Reformed Church Center–you can sample them on-line in your robe and slippers–or a book from the HSRCA–contact me and let me know what you’re interested in, and I will recommend something. If you find footnotes to be annoying and off-putting, ignore them and enjoy the story. And find things like this to look at outside of the RCA, too, if you must. Hospitality is, in many ways, a two-way street.

  • William Harris says:

    is part of this political? Narrative histories have a point of view. For the academic, points of view expose one to the surrounding conversations in both the academy and with stakeholders. If one wants to translate history to the public, why it matters and the like, one necessarily puts on the political garment; one needs to be bold. And perhaps, also be online, like the #twitterstorians.

  • […] of increasing irrelevance and hospitality is a field that has lost its Christian virtue, how does a historian practice hospitality?  This is no small task, to make the academy more palatable to the larger public, and to also […]

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