Thomas Bender on Historians and the Public

19 07 2010

Some of my previous blog posts have dealt with the place of historical research in the wider society.  Why does historical research matter? Do academic historians have a responsibility to communicate their research to the broader public? Are historians, in particular historians of Canada, becoming too introverted? Are historians publishing too much about themselves and other historians and not enough about actual historical events?

I was intrigued by a recent article by Professor Thomas Bender dealing with the American historical profession’s relationship to the wider public. Here are are some of the most interesting passages from his essay.

“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 aspirations of the founders of the American Historical Association in 1884 were ambitious and expansive. No conventional state charter of incorporation for them; they secured a federal charter by act of Congress, and they were located in Washington, D.C., where AHA’s offices are now maintained on Capitol Hill. The charter and location are meaningful: the founders intended to influence national history as well as record it. ”

“At the time the AHA was founded the overriding cultural and political project was restoring the union. The price of reconciliation was accepting a regime of white terror imposed on black Americans in the former Confederate states.”
“The ratio of academics to journalists published in leading print media has dramatically declined in the past half century.”

“James worried that the future might belong to journalists, to the exclusion of serious researchers. There is more reason to worry today, and it is, as James knew, the Octopus as much as the gatekeepers and disordered public culture that poses the risk.”

For more observations by Bender, see here.

Hat tip to JW of Vancouver.