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.