Public History’s Downfall

when making history relevant for the public might be precisely about making it irrelevant.

Pierre Mignard, The Muse Clio, ca. 1689.

History and other humanities fields seem on the ropes these days, put on their heels by a one-two combo: neoliberalism’s sucker punch of adjunctification and the potential body blows of reactionary attacks.

For the last few decades, one response within the academy has been a call to go simple and go popular—to “go public,” rather like a private firm selling shares in an IPO in order to raise additional capital.

Lately I have been wondering if this has been a mistake.

To be clear, I write this as a committed public historian curious to see universities and colleges enter into democratic partnerships with other institutions, communities, and individuals. What I have to say here has nothing to do with abandoning this commitment, but rather in seeking to deepen it.

There is a profound irony to the response to the crisis in academic employment now well underway in history and other humanities fields. The call to cast aside specialization has only made things worse, not better. Meanwhile, the very fields that have embraced specialization—the infamous STEM fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics—are flourishing in terms of funding, political attention, and a kind of common sense belief that they require increased investment. History and the humanities forsake specialization for public orientation and only lose ground; STEM fields double down on specialization exactly as their public orientation—and only gain ground.

Perhaps the mistake made by the history and humanities professions has been to exchange the highly specialized, technical nature of their inquiry for a superficial populist ideology. The fantasy of speaking to an elusive “general audience” by academic historians and humanities scholars now often becomes merely a front for personal and professional self-aggrandizement: a marketing campaign pretending to be a democratic gesture. Even the more earnest attempt to engage in public history and public humanities projects, something I myself have done, can easily slip into an odd posture of turning one’s back on academic expertise. A kind of self-abnegation has become pro forma lately. Yet this denial of one’s own training weirdly winds up only condescending to others. Rather than entering into actual honest relationships which recognize power differentials and work across them in an egalitarian spirit, sometimes we have become too busy trying to faux-reverse engineer “privilege” in specious ways.

To be sure, the knowledge of academic historians and other humanities scholars intersects profoundly with knowledge held among non-academics. There are many forms of expertise out there. There are numerous modes of awareness and understanding. This is true of history and the humanities just as it is of STEM fields. The point is not to circle wagons, but neither is it to dissolve scholarly guilds. Rather, the point is to develop trust and make connections across institutional, social, economic, and political boundaries in which there are different kinds of knowledge and perspective that sometimes overlap and sometimes do not.

To do that, however, there need to be professions of history and humanities scholarship in the first place to do the linking up! Just as STEM scholars need to have time to specialize so they can attain certain kinds of new knowledge and offer the public new technologies, healing powers, and ways of comprehending the world, so too we need some people to be professional historians and humanities scholars. But these opportunities are increasingly in profound danger of vanishing.

Sure, we can throw in the towel on this fight, but at least maybe we should not, as a profession, purposely punch ourselves in the face. Plenty of other people are glad to do that for—and to—us. We need not issue self-inflicted wounds.

Yet, we exist in an odd moment currently. Some historians and humanities scholars think that we should thump away even harder at our own existence, at our specialized training and knowledge. Or they argue that we should bend over backwards to conceal our expertise. Scientists in the academy don’t undertake these contortions. Neither do the technical fields. Engineers don’t. Lawyers don’t do it. Doctors don’t. Certainly business professors don’t. They defend their advanced knowledge and the support it requires as worthy of funding and they do so precisely because they argue that their specialized labor and knowledge is exactly the thing that is publicly essential. Only historians and humanities scholars currently request public support while, bizarrely, undermining the very thing they are asking the public to bankroll.

Why in Herodotus’s name do history and humanities scholars do this? It makes no sense. Yet the only arguments mustered against the idea have seemed out of touch, never focused on providing more robust support for broader academic employment, only on complaining about usurpations of history and other specialized humanities knowledge by non-experts. That approach will not do.

We might pause to remember that there is a reason it takes many years to complete a PhD in history and the humanities—often longer than in STEM fields. Because it is not easy work. History and the humanities at advanced levels involve highly technical, specialized labor. That is why they are worth funding. Universities and colleges sustain this specialized, technical inquiry into the world and what it means to know it.

Moreover, this often seemingly esoteric pursuit of knowledge and understanding in the academy is precisely what supplies the foundation for higher education’s public mission. Airy flights are the solid grounding! If universities and colleges stop funding specialized research in history and the humanities, they are in fact failing their public mission, not realizing it. They grow increasingly into institutions of higher education in name only. What they have become, instead, are just equivalents to today’s corporations, which employ fictional publicness to sustain private fortunes.

To make the comparison of universities and colleges to corporations of course, raises an obvious point: you need to know your history to think of the parallel situation; you have to be able to formulate a critique based on awareness of that history. Specialized scholarship allows one to do so. To wit, these fields of specialized inquiry are the ones that document the long history of association between capitalist firms and institutions of higher learning in the first place. But you’d need historians and humanities scholars to study these facts fully—or even to be aware of them.

Maybe that’s why scholarly history and the humanities are under such intense attack. And maybe it is why they are so intensely contested in terms of providing support and funding for them to exist at all. These fields produce knowledge that those in power perhaps don’t want to know about—and certainly that they don’t want others knowing about. Because to confront complex and difficult histories and humanities topics would mean having to reckon with their implications fully.

Why is it, then, that historians and humanities scholars face such pressures—both self-imposed and asserted from without—to make their fields “relevant” when other academic disciplines do not? Perhaps because the ultimate goal is to render what they have to teach irrelevant.

1 thought on “Public History’s Downfall

  1. A restatement of theme, transferred over from social media conversations:

    Yes I’ve been thinking about all this stuff of late. My sense is that there is a deeper history to public history itself that is worth preserving, or at least exploring: the idea that professional historians can work with non-professional historians to bring forward historical expertise and knowledge in places where it isn’t always valued. Call that community history. And of course the work of connecting specialized scholarships of various sorts (among professional historians and anyone who thinks about history), particularly doing so in places that are public, which is to say parks, museums, historical markers, etc. etc. But the recent turn to public history seems perverse to say the least. It is not just fancy packaging, although you are right and that’s a problem. It’s also, I think, an insidious pressure toward self-promotion and star system aspiration masquerading as “public history.” In this sense it is a kind of privatization of history capturing the notion of the public! This comes a bit from the elitism of the academy itself, the guild mentality, which has often manifested in discriminatory forms of racism and sexism and other exclusionary practices. That has to be acknowledged. But it also, maybe even more crucially, comes from the destruction of stable employment for doing basic, competent teaching, research, and scholarship (actually doing this work competently takes serious skills). Without a stable base of employment, we end up in a world of “innovation,” “excellence,” “stakeholders,” and fantasies of glamor rather than an attempt to construct more stable, healthy institutions. Public history becomes publicity history. Making your mark as a historian shifts into a marketing campaign. So I am wondering: what if we just pushed for more robust funding of basic research, broadly conceived. Maybe that’s not the opposite of public history but in fact its very foundation?

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