The Historian in the Public Sphere

Ronald B. Alexander, October 2007

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To the Editor:

With the greatest respect to President Weinstein and her views as expressed in The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians (Perspectives, September 2007), I should like to present a minority, dissenting view. My disagreement is not regarding Sam Tanenhaus and his pronouncement on Arthur Schlesinger Jr., compared to today's historians, since I know nothing of that. My dissent, rather, is with some of the more general statements made by Weinstein regarding the state of academic historical research and publications.

I would like to axiomatically posit that the academic historian participates in two spheres, the private academic and the broader public. It follows that the skills and precise research honed in the private academic sphere are the basis for a broader historical analysis conveyed to the rest of society in the public sphere. The implicit, societal, utilitarian value is that the precision developed in "peer reviewed" academic discussion then validates the broader historical analysis presented in the public sphere. In this way, society at large benefits from knowing the historical assumptions and context in which it acts, not only domestically, but also externally in global relations. Failing this, the societal support given to the academic, private historical sphere is misappropriated into mere self-indulgence (the proverbial "academics talking to academics") without a broader societal good being served.

The war in Iraq is but a recent example. The public believed (or was led to believe by a few) that American Democracy is a divine gift, received from Mount Olympus fully formed, and transplantable by the United States, its earthly custodian, to any group on the globe regardless of its local history, tradition, or culture. Academic historians, and other serious students of U.S. history, knew this to be a nonsensical disregarding of the contingency of our own history. Based upon my recollection of the times, I venture to suggest that the academic historical profession was largely absent from the public field in the fall of 2002 while we as a society were "fixing the intelligence" to go to war to rid the world of Saddam Hussein, his weapons of mass destruction, and to bring democracy to Iraq where some said we would be welcomed as democratic liberators rather than western, occupying crusaders.1

The danger in public-sphere historical analysis, as Weinstein correctly states, is that it may be fraught with "many debatable assumptions and ideologically loaded constructions." But the sound historian will, one hopes, build carefully into a usable analysis, rather than recklessly into a mere polemic.

My own argument is: If the academic historian refrains from public debate—which necessarily requires broader analysis than can be found in academic publications—then our public may be left with charlatans shilling duplicitous propaganda, with no one to say no to them.

—Ronald B. Alexander
Oakton, Va.

Note

1. Notable voices did speak out against the rush to war. See, for example, the statements by Historians Against the War (at www.historiansagainstwar.org/press.html). But their founding statement was dated January 3, 2003, a little more than two months before the war began, too late to change the course of history. While the history of 9/11 and its aftermath has now reached the classroom (see Janny Scott "9/11 Leaves Its Mark on History Classes," New York Times, September 6, 2006), the historian's voice was needed in public in 2002 as well as in the classroom in 2006.