Historians in Public

Thomas Bender, New York University

[This is an older version. A completely revised and much extended version of this essay is posted here.]

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 chronic shortage of academic positions since the 1970s has stimulated a search for a more focused public role, and many historians have taken the title of “public historian.” They work outside of academe, and speak from museums, historical societies, national parks, and various community organizations. In a sense the designation “public” before “historian” or “intellectuals” is redundant.[1]As Émile Zola declaimed, the intellectual is by definition a public actor; moreover, all professions, including the academic ones, claim a public aspect by definition to justify their privileges of incorporation and self-regulation. That this linguistic and definitional problem confusion is rarely noticed may be an indicator of the narrowing of professional aspiration and responsibility among historians as well as a sense of isolation, feeling of impotence, and, perhaps, irrelevance. Such was not the case in the beginning.

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. They envisioned a national institution, and the national history of the United States would be their principal, though not exclusive, object of study. For them the public was a national body, but it was hardly the diverse public of our time. A hundred years ago the comfortable, even unconscious, elitism of even the most democratic academics gave them both a position of authority in public life and an identifiable audience that included the small minority of Americans who were college-educated and those who managed state affairs. It is no surprise that the same people who founded the AHA were also leaders in the movement for Civil Service Reform.

They assumed that their audience, composed mostly of people comfortable with both power and ideas, was coterminous with the public. William James had this segment of the citizenry in mind when he spoke of the “value of the college bred.” Their liberal education prepared them to “discriminate,” to judge the relative worth of ideas and policies, and doing just that was their social responsibility.[2]

James, who famously railed at the Ph.D. “Octopus,” noted that there had recently emerged in New York a number of magazine writers—mostly graduates of elite colleges—who were doing this work for an audience similarly educated. In fact, James published his article in one of these magazines, McClure’s, a reform magazine famous for publishing the “muckrakers.” With the exception of the late Richard Rorty or Anthony Appiah, neither of whom would be considered philosophers in NYU’s philosophy department, such cross-over publication by a philosopher is unlikely in the discipline today. Humanities disciplines have become tighter, reducing their connection with a “public” without acquiring standing as “experts,” like the economists, for example. Not only has history become less open and expansive in Post-War America, but so has the media that once welcomed historians to its pages or microphones. Journalists, the gate-keepers to the public, have become competitors rather than collaborators. They have been pulling up the draw bridges. The ratio of academics to journalists published in leading print media has dramatically declined in the past half century.[3]

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. The very size of the professional history establishment discourages looking beyond one’s peers for readers or conversants. The profession is roomy enough to find ample stimulation without going outdoors.[4]

Most of the major disciplines were organized into professional associations between the Civil War and World War I. Why then?[5] Initially, it was to give influence to serious thought in a public culture that seemed utterly disordered, exhibiting the “spirit of the mob, ” to use the phrase of E.L. Godkin, the founding and long-time editor of The Nation. He had been the leading post-Civil War proponent for the creation of a great national graduate university as well as professional associations of the learned that would produce a greater concentration of public opinion and “a better means of communication to those interested in or engaged in the cultivation of the sciences, arts, and literature.”[6] As he saw it, the public was like a marketplace; anyone with an idea, good or bad, hawked it like a dry good merchant. Though committed to laissez faire in respect to the economy, Godkin sought in the domain of intellect to hedge the market, to control the competition. He, and others of the “best men” as Godkin and his crowd styled themselves, wanted a “safe haven” for “sound thinking.”[7]

They began with the founding of the American Social Science Association (ASSA) in 1870. Confronted with ideologies of equality and democracy, which eroded the authority of old elites, they sought to establish their authority through institutions. It was, however, quite distinct from later disciplinary associations. It addressed common public problems in the language of the public, whether education or political economy, or crime or poverty. Members did not see themselves as advancing a body of social knowledge through research; rather they aimed to give weight to their knowledge based on everyday observation. At the 1874 meeting of the Association, George W. Curtis, editor of Harpers, explained to his colleagues that the reformer Franklin Sanborn’s “practical acquaintance” with the work of social improvement “gives authority to every word that he says upon the subject.”[8]

In the 1880s the American Historical Association and other learned societies were founded at the annual ASSA meetings. At first it was not clear to what degree the new scholarly associations would deviate from the practices of the ASSA. Initially, content—more than specialization or “method”—seems to have been the focus, as it was in the ASSA. Among historians there was a mix of amateur “gentlemen” and academic historians. Few of the first twenty presidents of the American Historical Association were professional historians.

When The Johns Hopkins University was founded in 1876, the question of its relation to the ASSA had inevitably been raised. It was inevitable because Daniel Coit Gilman, the founding president of the new university, was also president of the ASSA. He considered a merger of the two; had he followed through on that idea the development of professional social inquiry in the United States might have been different. The common public culture and disciplinary cultures might have had an institutional space for the exchange of ideas for their mutual benefit. But by 1883 Gilman had decided against the merger, and in that year Johns Hopkins professors established the Modern Language Association, and the next year the American Historical Association was founded by Hopkins professors. In 1885, Richard Ely, an economist at Johns Hopkins, played a key role in negotiating the formation of the American Economic Association, which was founded at the annual meeting of the American Historical Association, since, as Ely once commented, all of the economists would be at the historians’ meeting.

Disciplinary boundaries were still in definition. Woodrow Wilson, who was trained in the famous Historical Seminar at Johns Hopkins by historian Herbert Baxter Adams, is remembered as a political scientist—and he taught politics at Princeton before his political career began. Yet he was the teacher of the economist Richard Ely (who also studied in Germany) and Ely was Frederick Jackson Turner’s most important teacher—and Turner later recruited him to Wisconsin to maintain the interdisciplinarity he had experienced at Johns Hopkins. While the early graduate schools were committed to advanced research, they sought to educate civic leaders, not future academics. The battle over the League of Nations was fought between two early history Ph.D.s: Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge. It was only with the collapse of the classical curriculum and the introduction of more modern subjects, including the social sciences, in the 1890s that the Columbia economist E.R.A. Seligman, a key leader of American social science and academic professionalization, realized that his students were getting jobs as teachers rather than going into public service. Seligman and his colleagues turned to replicating themselves, but this had not been the original motive for doctoral study.

When in 1881 Columbia established the Faculty of Political Science, the stem of what is now the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, the announced intention was to train men in “the mental culture” (hardly the language of later social science expertise) that would prepare them for careers in the “civil service” or as “public journalists” or for the “duties of public life” generally.[9] Theodore Roosevelt entered the Public Law program of the Faculty of Political Science at Columbia and Woodrow Wilson the history program at Johns Hopkins with civic careers as their goals. The 1912 presidential campaign saw Woodrow Wilson, the Princeton historian, defeat the sitting president of the American Historical Association, Theodore Roosevelt.

Frederick Jackson Turner, who had little taste for public life, engaged in all the activities we consider “public history,” from working with Wisconsin teachers, the state historical society, and writing for the larger public. His famous essay, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” was initially a public lecture at the Chicago World’s Fair and Exposition in 1893, and it was a somber lecture, challenging those who held to the idea of American exceptionalism. The disappearance of the “frontier line” would end the process of westering and normalize American history. Three years later he presciently wrote in the Atlantic that the United States might well respond to this crisis by joining the Europeans in the race for empire.[10]

By the 1890s, the social sciences were beginning to redefine themselves. They embraced theoretical constructs that conferred the authority of expertise. These theories distinguished the social scientists from each other and from the general culture. Direct observation and common sense was no longer adequate. For sociology, the concept of “society,” or the “near infinity of group relationships and processes” represented a new “conception of reality,” according to Albion Small, the founder of the Sociology Department at the University of Chicago.[11] As early as the 1840s, Asa Gray had pointed out that end of “naked eye” science removed science from the general population, and the invention of social science, with its special theories, would also demote the naïve empiricism of the ordinary citizen—and Franklin Sanborn. History, however, did not make this move.[12]The difference between Francis Parkman or Henry Adams and the writers of doctoral dissertations was talent, not theory. The archive, not theory, was the foundation of historical writing that provided the public with a narrative explanation of historical change.

This early history is not intended as an exercise in nostalgia, but rather to gain the perspective distance offers to appraise the challenges of our time. For me at least three striking differences stand out: first, the centrality of the nation and nation-making, second, the openness of the profession/discipline, an openness across disciplines in pursuit of explanations and an openness to civic life, and, third, the nature of the presumed public.

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. One of the great accomplishments of recent scholarship has been to make this clear.[13] In fact the scholarship of the past two or three decades has focused on a variety of exclusions—many people who were previously excluded from the American narrative—and by implication—the American public. Now race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have been written into history and public life. This was obviously a good thing, and it had a large impact in schools, the media, and the law, among other dimensions of our lives.

Yet something was lost—the nation and the state. The recovered persons were incorporated into society, not into a narrative of the nation or the state, into identity politics, not citizenship. In the 1980s and 1990s instead of talk about and inquiry into “the public,” there was talk of publics, alternative publics, counter-publics, a black public sphere, and more. The list got pretty long, but the public dissolved in this otherwise invaluable historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. There was no United States. History was all parts, no whole. Bookstores organized American history by these identity-driven markets, often with no place for general histories. The challenge not taken up was how to narrate a whole made up of diverse and unequal parts.[14] History identified—perhaps created—the multiple, almost infinite, audiences, but the public and the nation was lost. Yet the public needs a state (to execute policy), and the state needs a public independent of itself to establish the public interest. Historians must bring the state back into relation to society, and along the way they need to rediscover the public. It will be, however, very different from that the early AHA did had in mind. And historians must make themselves a part of that public.

I think some of that work is now being done. The kind of relational history that can bring together the history of society and sustain a sense of state power and public authority is the focal point of an increasing number of local studies that are interested in the politics of difference rather than simply difference, institutional power, especially economic and political, as well as the cage of culture. Citizenship rather than identity is emerging as a new focal point.[15]

Whence a public? How does social life become political and thus a public? Here John Dewey is valuable. In his The Public and Its Problems (1927) Dewey gives a schematic explanation of how a public is formed and what it is. In fact, in his view these were a continuum. A public for Dewey comes into being as third party victims of government or private acts find each other. These “matters of concern” emerge out of daily life and provide the foundation for ad hoc formations of the public.[16] This is a very different form of public than our professional ancestors imagined.

If this is right, events, not intellectuals, make a public, but intellectuals and especially historians are tasked at such moments—whether in classrooms, the press, museums, public assemblies, and books—to provide narratives that represent the emergent public and explain our troubled present so that we might figure out the next move.

Dewey had a great deal to say about the relation of the intellectual to this emergent public. The pursuit of truth and the practice of politics, for him, are both unfinished projects, always unfinished, and both are forms of finding better and better truths for living together in society and democratic polity. The intellectual, academic or otherwise, he argued was a part of whatever public emerges. The focus of intellectuals, Dewey argued, was provided by common life, those animating matters of concern given voice in the public realm. The scholar, for Dewey, does not approach the public as an expert, but rather as one of the public, a member with special access to a fund of knowledge and rigorous forms of thought that he or she can bring to matters of concern. But after exploring the esoteric knowledge available to him or her, the scholar must bring that knowledge back to the public in the language of the public without claiming the authority of expertise, but rather relying upon persuasion in the public sphere. It seems that historians in public fit this ideal; we begin with a common concern, explore the resources our discipline provides for us, and we return with a narrative interpretation, full of interdependent variables and contingencies that implicitly or explicitly point to nodes of possible political intervention. Today, I believe, we can serve the public best by providing historical understanding of the relation of society to the history of the state and our largest non-state institutions, particularly the corporations that dominate our economy and politics.

The power of historical narratives is greater than we sometimes realize. When Larry Summers was still president of Harvard, he called together a large number of his most distinguished faculty to discuss a liberal arts education. Opening the discussion, he claimed that liberal learning meant real knowledge. And he gave an example: the knowledge to make a cell phone, which changed the way we live. As Secretary of the Treasury travelling in Africa, he could be reached by phone. An invited speaker, a historian not on the Harvard faculty who followed him to the podium, prefaced his own presentation by noting that the historical study of race and gender in the United States, the work of humanists and particularly historians, had created a narrative interpretation that had a greater impact on society than the cell phone. Summers did not retract his statement, but neither did he attempt to shout down that assertion of the power of historical studies. History is a mode of scholarship and thinking that can construct narratives that are themselves actors in public life. But historians must be ready with a relevant narrative of how things got the way they are and what makes them a matter of concern when a public emerges. That narrative, I think, must address institutional power, both of the state and of our economic institutions. A future politics depends on that.

[This is an older version. A completely revised and much extended version of this essay is posted here.]

1.  This redundant usage was popularized by Russell Jacoby, The Last Intellectuals (1987).
2.  William James, “The Social Value of the College Bred” (1908), in William James, Writings, ed. Bruce Kuklick (1987), 1242-49.
3.  An limited study (small N) of contributors to the New York Times Op Ed page, the New York Times Book Review, and the New York Review of Books, in January, April, July, and October issues 1968 (except Op Eds), 1988, and 2008 by Tracy Neumann shows that historians are contributors about three times as frequently as sociologists and political scientists combined. The three publications were surveyed for the months of January, April, July, and October of 1968 (no Op Eds), 1988, and 2008. There were almost no articles by political scientists and sociologists in the years surveyed, with range from 0 to 4, though on Op Eds in the Times political scientists matched historians, both with very low total. Historians did much better in the other categories, indicating their public role: New York Review of Books: 1968/1988/2008: 7/19/9; New York Times Book Review: 10/15/6; New York Times Op-Ed:  n/a/2/1. On the relation of academics to journalists one also sees a shift: New York Review of Books: Academics n/a/39/35; Journalists n/a/13/37; New York Times Book Review: Academics 1988/2008: 75/26; Journalists 85/99; New York Times Op Ed: Academics 8/13; Journalists 2/10.
4.  Francois Weil, “Do American Historical Narratives Travel?” in Thomas Bender, ed. Rethinking American History in a Global Age (2002), 325-29.
5.  See Thomas Bender, Intellect and Public Life (1993), chaps. 1,3.
6.  [E.L. Godkin], “The Organization of Culture,” Nation, 6 (1868), 486-88.
7.  See Thomas L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (Urbana, IL, 1977).
8.  Quoted in Bender, Intellect and Public Life, 44.
9.  Quoted in ibid. 51.
10.  Frederick Jackson Turner, “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” (1893) and “The Problem of the West” (1896), in John Mack Farragher, Rereading Frederick Jackson Turner (1994), 31-76.
11.  Albion W. Small, The Origins of Sociology (Chicago, 1924), 335-37, 326. See also Franklin H. Giddings, “The Relation of Sociology to Other Scientific Studies,” Journal of Social Science, 32 (1894), 145-6.
12.  Later, for some historians, but a distinct minority, Marxism would provide a similar underlying structural explanation of social change.
13.  Compare Paul Buck, The Road to Reunion (1938) and David Blight, Race and Reunion (2001).
14.  For my effort to reconstitute a public out of these rich materials, see Thomas Bender, “Making History Whole Again,” New York Times Book Review (October 6, 1985), 1, 42-43; “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History,73 (1986), 120-36; “Wholes and Parts: Continuing the Conversation, ibid., 74 (1987), 1123-30. For other efforts, see Herbert G. Gutman, “The Missing Synthesis: Whatever Happened to History?” Nation,(Novmeber 21, 1981), 521-24; Eric Foner, “History in Crisis,” Commonweal (December 18, 1981), 723-26.
15.  The best examples come from Thomas Sugrue, Origin of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit (1996) and Sweet Land of Liberty: The Forgotten Struggle for Civil Rights in the North (2008) and from Lizabeth Cohen, Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-39 (1990); A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America (2008) and her current project on Frank Logue and urban renewal. Earlier, in his study of reconstruction, Eric Foner brought together social and political history in a very compelling fashion. See Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution (1988).
16.  “Matters of concern” is Bruno Latour’s terminology for this Deweyan practice. See Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, or How to Make Things Public,“ in Bruno Latour and P. Weibel, eds. Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (2005), 41.

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