Out of the Ivory Tower: Historians and the Public(s)

Eric Foner, May 2000

This special issue of Perspectives addresses a question that should be of concern to all historians—our relationship as professional students and teachers of the past to the large and amorphous "public" outside the academy. The 1990s saw history emerge as a subject of intense public debate in the United States. For a time, it seemed, one could not open a newspaper without encountering a controversy about the past. Disagreements over such questions as how to mark the quincentenary of Columbus's voyage of 1492, the ill-fated Enola Gay exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution, the National History Standards, the renaming of public schools in the South to eliminate commemoration of slaveholders, and the flying of the Confederate flag made history a component of political campaigns and a source of scrutiny outside the academy.

Lawmakers in the 1990s began to mandate the study of particular historical episodes in public parks and schools. Congress called on the National Park Service to reevaluate Civil War sites to ensure that slavery receives adequate attention, and in my own state of New York, the legislature required classroom instruction in the history of the Holocaust, Irish famines, and slavery. Historians also emerged as major actors in public controversies, most dramatically during the impeachment of President Clinton. In all these cases, what was striking was not simply the passions history generated, but the wide gap that clearly existed between historians' conception of their role and how the general public appears to view the study of the past. To historians, the process of reinterpretation is the lifeblood of historical understanding. To many outside the profession, history is a fixed set of facts, and "revisionism"—the substitution of new viewpoints for old—a term of abuse. Given the partisan motivations of so many controversies of the 1990s, it may well be doubted whether they generated any genuine increase in historical understanding among the general public. It would be perfectly understandable for historians to react to these debates by retreating altogether from the effort to engage a broader public. This, I think, would be a serious mistake. A century ago, in his presidential address to the AHA, Charles Francis Adams called on historians to step outside the ivory tower and engage forthrightly in public discourse. The study of history, he insisted, had a "public function," and historians had an obligation to contribute to public debates in which history was frequently invoked for political purposes with little real understanding of historical issues. Historians could help raise political deliberations from the depressingly low level to which they had sunk. "The standard of American political discussion," Adams pointedly remarked, "is not now so high as not to admit of elevation," and invocations of history should not be left to "the journalist and the politician." These observations are as relevant today as in 1900, when Adams spoke. History, a sophisticated understanding of past events and of the process by which the past is interpreted and reinterpreted, is too important to be ceded to Hollywood, journalists, historical novelists, and politicians.

The AHA is very grateful to David Trask for editing this special issue, and to the historians who have contributed its stimulating contents. Reading these essays ought to inspire us to think more clearly and carefully about the publics we wish to reach, and how to make the fruits of current scholarship more generally accessible. It should make us more aware of the central role played by public historians—those working in museums, historical societies, national parks, and other such institutions—in the dissemination of historical information and ideas, and to recognize them as equal members of the historical profession. It should make us aware of the many reasons people seek out knowledge of the past, including nostalgia; a sense of pride in one's family, group, or nation; and a comprehension of the historical roots of modern-day social problems. Whether we like it or not, the public for history extends far beyond our classrooms and readers of our scholarly books and articles. That broad public, like our students and colleagues, deserves the best understanding of the past that we as a profession can generate.

—Eric Foner (Columbia Univ.) is president of the AHA.