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Erin Bartram: In a piece in The New Republic yesterday, Graham Vyse explores the idea that historians have been “radicalized” by the political events of the past year. He speaks with a number of historians about how they feel about using their expertise in the public sphere, and the difficulties historians might face in engaging with the public without appearing partisan or “too political.” Given that our blog is, ostensibly, one of the forms this “radicalization” has taken, today we’re going to take a look at some of the ideas presented in the piece, and talk about how we navigate these issues in talking with members of the public about history.


Chris Bouton: So what were your thoughts after reading this?

Erin: Well, there were a few things that caught my eye. One was the idea that historians are or have long been quiet and insular in this way, mostly because we’re also accused of indoctrinating in the classroom all the time. So one thing this raises for me is how much we construe work in the classroom as inherently separate from working with “the public”

Chris: The piece has a narrow definition of public, the writer seems to be focusing on the role of historians in the pundit class ala Arthur Schlesinger

Erin: Yes, and even more narrowly, the historian as talking head on the teevee, since there’s a longer, broader history of historians writing pieces for newspapers/magazines.

Chris: Yes, there are historians today who write for newspapers and magazines. Some very good historians at that. The piece does make a good point that historians can and should be using their experience to help contextualize what is going on right now. I’m less sympathetic towards the “appearing partisan” or “too political” argument.

Erin: I think that generally misconstrues what historians do when they insert themselves, honestly, but it’s not surprising.

Chris: It’s also a narrow view of what we mean by politics.

Erin: When historians got mad about the Andrew Jackson thing, it wasn’t because Trump got a fact wrong – anyone could look up AJ’s dates. It was about interpretation. Historians, by engaging in these debates, are making the argument that interpretation of the past is a skill, and it has methods and limitations and impact

Chris: Right, we can’t get worked up every time somebody messes up a date or a fact. That happens, we all do it. As I wrote, it was the arrogance of the entire claim. Hubris is the word I should have used on Monday. That a millionaire who inherited a real estate empire, engaged in multiple bankruptcies, brags about how little he reads or thinks critically about the world, thought he or Andrew Jackson could have avoided the Civil War? I mean, the statement is so revealing precisely because it shows how little he knows about what he doesn’t know about.

Erin: The most dangerous people: the people who don’t know what they don’t know.

But the issue of how to do this without “appearing partisan” has been on my mind. One of the historians quoted in there says there are historical truths just like there are scientific truths. And we do appeal to evidence. How many times can we point to the secession declarations and the cornerstone speech?

Chris: I don’t think the appearing partisan issue is one particularly worth worrying about

Erin: Well, but here’s where I encounter it. I’ve been teaching Reaganomics this past week, and I can explain supply-side economics and the ideas behind it, and I have evidence that it didn’t do what it claimed it would do. The sticky bits come when students say “But it seems really obvious that this wouldn’t work. It seems really obvious that you can’t make rich people invest in businesses and raise wages. Did people really think this would work?”

Chris: Well, yes, some of them did. But some of them did it because it was in their best interest. Not everyone involved in politics is honest or trustworthy. Like any other line of work.

Erin: But I think those are the moments where I am hyper aware of appearing “partisan,” because I am essentially saying “these people are liars and btw they are still in government”

Chris: If the claim is supported by the available evidence…

Erin: I have no problem looking at Thurmond’s CRA filibuster where he says “We in the South know how to deal with this and care for the Negro” or whatever and saying “that’s complete crap”

Chris: I guess I’d frame it as, no matter what you do by entering the political punditry/talking head class there’s no avoiding those accusations.

Erin: Indeed. I think one thing that shapes my anxieties is that as a woman, my understanding of politics and the economy is always in doubt for many of my students. The number of “Well, actually” gold standard lectures I’ve received in class is obscene. But I’m also a “feminazi” too so ::shrug::

Chris: This discussion also touches on a broader point, I think we’d like to believe that we, as historians, can marshal evidence to offer valid interpretations of the past. And that by marshaling evidence we can convince everyone. But that will never convince everyone, especially someone who has already let their own biases blind them. And that by marshaling evidence, we can convince everyone. But we can’t.

Erin: And to those people, we’re the “bias” ones.

This is why I think it’s not wrong of us to consider our work in the classroom to be an important part of public outreach. We can give analysis on CNN (well, not you and me, but historians in general), but teaching historical thinking skills takes time. It’s ultimately more productive, though.

Chris: Yes, I agree that we need a broader conception about what our work in public is. The classroom is a hugely important piece of that.

Erin: Different things can happen in different places.

Chris: Right, we have museums, public history sites, the classroom, op-eds, magazine features, popular history books etc. We need to recognize the values and virtues of each.

Erin: And there’s always been this discussion going on, and historians have always argued that the choices we make in teaching and the arguments we formulate are “political” in the sense that they have power.

I think, in some ways, this is being framed as “radicalism” because it’s more comfortable to say the historians have gotten extreme, when the problem is that the glib ahistoricism of the current administration is what got extreme. Every president, including the last one, was bad at talking about history sometimes, and used ideas about history to make arguments that didn’t hold up. Historians responded to them too.

Chris: The historical profession didn’t change on Election Day.

I also think that this can be a moment of reflection for those in the historical community. In that if we want to advocate for historians to become more active in taking their arguments to the general public, we need to create institutional incentives.

At least in my academic experience, if you’re on tenure track, you need to publish in a reputable journal, get the book done, write for the academic crowd, teach just enough to get by, but let your research, which few people can understand, guide you to the promised land of tenure. There’s no incentive to reach out beyond the narrow bounds of expertise until much later in your career.

Erin: And in an environment where state budget hawks love to find ways to defund public education, universities can see this sort of public engagement as a liability

I think part of what makes it hard is that what makes one an “expert” in history to the general public is knowing things, not knowing how to think and analyze in a particular way. Therefore anything that requires analysis becomes “that’s just your opinion, man”

Chris: Right and this is where I think the comparison with science that was made in the piece was a good one, that historical thinking is not knowing things, but a process of analyzing events/facts/whatever and then making informed conclusions. It is of course built upon knowing things.

Erin: History is not a thing, it is a way of doing things.

Chris: That should be our new motto.

I guess the other thing that struck me about the piece is the sense of, “Oh when did history education get so bad” part of it. It’s a little Helen Lovejoy “Oh, won’t somebody please think of the children!”

We know why it’s on the decline. Higher ed funding has been on the decline for years. And as a profession, we haven’t done a good enough job making public outreach a part of what it means to be a TT historian at an R1 university. We insulated ourselves far too much and pushed the incentives far too much towards talking to only one another and not enough to people outside our fields. Just think about how some scholars we’ve met and read respond to the idea of “public history.”

I realize I’m painting with a broad stroke here and this isn’t true in every case.  As there are an army of public historians, museum curators, interpreters, and countless others who do a remarkable job in reaching out to the general public.

I guess my point is, the academic wing of professional historians could do a better job of recognizing what’s being done already (museums, teaching, historical sites etc.) and building off of that.

Erin: We should both learn from them and work with them.

Chris: Exactly. Teaching is hugely important, especially if we want people to teach the historical process and not just facts.

Erin: And teaching happens in lots of places. There’s supposedly really high public trust in historians. I’m not sure you’d know it, but if there is, we should see growing that relationship as a major goal for the discipline and as individual historians.