Historians in Public

Thomas Bender, New York University

It is no easy challenge to situate the place and role of academic scholarship into the public sphere. The main reason is that both “academic knowledge” and the “public sphere” have over time taken novel forms and are still being transformed into yet newer forms. And this means that figuring out the place of history and historians in the public sphere is somewhat like standing up in a canoe. Too much motion.

Not only are academics worrying this point. Indeed a recent and long article on the front page of the new “Sunday Review” section of The New York Times portrayed something of a crisis. The author, Neal Gabler, a movie critic and historian of popular culture, is an unlikely author for such a piece, but he made a vigorous if sometimes wandering case for the decline of an academic presence in the public culture. Offering up a rather miscellaneous group of academic scholars who brought “big ideas” into the public sphere in the decades after World War II, he contrasted the present low visibility of academic intellect in public discourse. He targets university intellectuals, more or less accurately, for their narrow, often technical, contributions to the “literature” of particular disciplinary sub-fields. But he also links the diminishing presence of academics or their work to a growing obsession for information rather than ideas in the hyper-commercialized mass communication and digital world of our time. What he seems to be describing is Sesame Street for adults. There is no connecting narrative, just a parade of fascinating particulars.

Once upon a time, Gabler argues, information was the foundation of ideas; now information (often of questionable validity) competes with ideas—and ideas are being routed. The public sphere is cluttered with “opinion and orthodoxy” posing as ideas. No large narratives are on offer that might orient the public to the physical and social worlds of our time or to ourselves.{{1}} The absence of such narratives weakens our capacity to understand the causes of our situation and possible points of political intervention.

In the same week, the Economist announced on its cover and in a 14 page “special report” the end of the public sphere and media-scape as we have known it since World War II. Embracing a change that surely has consequences for the Economist, Tom Standage declared the era of the mass media to be at an end.{{2}} He explained that we are returning to a digital equivalent of the age of the eighteenth century coffee house and nineteenth century local newspapers. It is not clear that Standage recognizes that these two forms of the public sphere belong to different eras, but his point is that we are returning to a public sphere akin to what existed before the rise of mass communications in the late nineteenth century. Instead of having authoritative news brought by dedicated reporters and national media (Walter Cronkite), he argues that the public sphere of the future, as in that distant past, will be populated by “gossip, opinion and ideas within particular circles of communities, with little distinction between producers and consumers of information.” We will have a genuinely “social media.”{{3}}

I am not nearly as confident as either of these writers that I have a handle on the present or a clear vision of the future, but I do think that their speculations oblige me to frame my inquiry in a way that simultaneously addresses the public sphere and academic intellect. We cannot address only the latter, which I was initially inclined to do. We must get a handle on two moving targets—both academic knowledge and the changing public sphere. How has each changed? What have been the relations between academe and the public sphere? What might they be in the near future, if they survive at all in any significant way?{{4}}

While it is true that the “public” in the London coffee house, which typically extended into the street as well as into the halls of royal administration, was local and miscellaneous and open to all voices, its ideas were given public form and extension by a fairly elite press managed by such writers as Addison and Steele, themselves models for a contemporary budding journalist in Philadelphia named Benjamin Franklin.{{5}} Franklin, of course, was invested in an inclusive public sphere, including those who wore a leather-apron as well as the governing elite. Yet while the public discourse of the coffee house was open and various, there was hierarchy. The gist of the ideas floated were effectively codified and distributed by literary figures who possessed significant cultural and, perhaps, political capital. The result was a public culture that was at once open and hierarchical—and credible because it possessed both of those qualities.

Modern democracy—defined here as universal white male suffrage—was invented in the middle third of the nineteenth century in the United States, and this expansion of the political community had consequences for the role of intellect in public life. The dilemma for trained intellect in Jacksonian America and beyond was that between quantity (majority vote) as a measure of public truth and quality as represented by education and intellectual accomplishment.{{6}} This concern runs through the commentary of Alexis de Tocqueville.{{7}} The public sphere, the world of culture as well as politics, was even more open than the suffrage. James Fenimore Cooper lamented in a letter for the sculptor Horatio Greenough: “You are in a country in which every man swaggers and talks; knowledge or no knowledge; brains or no brains, taste or no taste. They are all ex nato connoisseurs . . . and everyman’s equal.”{{8}} Whether one speaks of politics or culture, it was a remarkably free-wheeling public sphere. Indeed, for the intellectual elite, who felt marginalized by the shouts of the half-educated and the voter mobilization managed by political machines, it was all too open.

The creation of modern American research universities and their organization of more or less self-regulating intellectual communities (emerging academic disciplines) was a response to this condition.{{9}} The educated elite who wished to reform this chaotic and splintered public culture identified it with the rather different charlatanisms of P.T. Barnum and his museum and the fatuous theology and preaching of Henry Ward Beecher.{{10}} E.L. Godkin, founding editor of The Nation and the moral and political guide to the educated classes, complained that “a large body” of badly educated persons, who think that they possess “in the matter of social, mental, and moral culture, all that is attainable or desirable,” presume to “tackle all the problems of the day.” The result, he declared, is “a kind of moral and mental chaos.” Lamenting the “disintegration of public opinion,” he called for professional organizations, research universities, and authoritative institutions, like the newly founded Metropolitan Museum of Art, to produce a “greater concentration of instructed opinion.”{{11}}

It was in this spirit that Johns Hopkins was founded in 1876 and that Columbia created the graduate Faculty of Political Science in 1881. In 1883, with the founding of the Modern Language Association, the American Historical Association in 1884, and the American Economic Association in 1885 (all organized by Johns Hopkins Professors) the modern American structure of the academic human sciences was born.

Two things are important to keep in mind about this moment. First, the impulse was elitist. Indeed, it was an elitist withdrawal from competition in a wide open public sphere.{{12}} Godkin and the first university leaders, who with no self-consciousness referred to themselves as “the best men,” wanted a platform of organized authority from which to achieve influence over the direction of both culture and politics. Second, the purpose of the Ph.D. was not understood to prepare young men for a career in academe. Rather it was intended to instill in them “the mental culture” that would serve them in careers in “civil service,” “public journalists” or, more generally, the “duties of public life.”{{13}} It was precisely for this reason that Woodrow Wilson became one of the first students to enroll in the doctoral program at Johns Hopkins and that Theodore Roosevelt studied Public Law in the Faculty of Political Science at Columbia.{{14}} Only in the 1890s, as the claims of the classical curriculum gave way to modern subjects, including the new social sciences and modern languages, did this change. Graduate professors then began training clones of themselves to staff the rapid expansion of higher education.

But this transformation did not mean withdrawal from public life. The American Historical Association and the American Economic Association in particular assumed their professional activities to be as much civic as academic. Recent studies of the progressive movement, from its roots in the 1890s onward, show that these new social scientists with Ph.D.s, whether in university positions, public service, or reform organizations, dominated the transformation of laissez faire liberalism into “social liberalism” in Western Europe, Latin America, Japan, and the United States.{{15}} On a global scale, this was, I would argue, the most public moment for the social sciences ever, exceeding the 1950s and 1960s.

This public aspect continued, but gradually at the cost of a commitment to the teaching mission. Between 1940 and 1990, federal funds for higher education increased by a factor of twenty-five, enrollment by ten, and average teaching loads were reduced by half.{{16}} The system was also nationalized during this period, weakening faculty identification with the institution and cutting them off from the local community.{{17}} In the 1890s, an AHA committee of leading historians established what still remains the basic national framework for the teaching of history in the schools, and at the same time these historians (and their colleagues) established strong local ties to schools, historical societies, and other civic institutions. For example, Frederick Jackson Turner’s most profound reflections on history as a discipline were presented to a meeting of Wisconsin teachers two years before his famous address on the significance of the frontier at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago in 1893. This role for academic intellect owed something to the continuing place of the educated elite in the public sphere, but it also had local institutional roots. The later disconnect from locality that was central the to the post-1945 triumph of the modern research university raised the stakes for civic involvement. It seemed that one must reach for national audiences and visibility or not bother. The national stage brought greater recognition and impact, but it was more difficult to ascend.

Location still counted. For some the local was national. The national public sphere was shaped by mass communications—which were editorially centered in New York City. Such was the circumstance that enabled the emergence of what became known as the “New York Intellectuals,” some of whom were academics, some of whom were high end journalists.{{18}} They not only benefitted from the political moment as liberal anti-communists, but they also wrote about politics in the common language of contemporary politics and significantly shaped that language. This public sphere was managed by the liberal elite that held editorial sway in both the print and broadcast media. There was a continuum, as ideas moved from narrow research, to synthesis within academe, to extension into the public culture by academics who wrote well and mostly in a narrative form. Such was the path of the work of Daniel Bell, David Riesman (who appeared on the cover of Time), Richard Hofstadter, Arthur Schlesinger, C. Vann Woodward, Irving Howe and Lionel Trilling, among others, including even the more radical C. Wright Mills. Christopher Lasch, of the generation following this group, is a particularly significant case. From college he aspired to be a writer. He had little regard for the professional aspect of the field, but he saw in the discipline of history a resource for addressing contemporary problems in culture and politics. Although he did contribute to the “literature” of history, that was not at all the point of his scholarship.{{19}}

Since the 1970s, however, there has been a profound change in the research and career strategies in the humanities and social sciences.{{20}} And, as well shall see, in the public sphere as well. A variety of influences, mostly the vast expansion of research universities, the disappointments of academic activism in public life, the souring of the academic job market after 1971 in most fields combined with an accelerating academic marketplace for “stars,” and the intellectual joy of theorizing and puzzle-solving are all important elements for explaining the change. Together these factors encouraged production over reflection and theoretical and/or technical cleverness over large narratives, scorned on the left as “master” narratives.

Postmodernism and its close cousin Post-Structuralism have played their role as well. Their rejection of the Enlightenment legacy of knowledge as liberating and their suspicion of grand narratives reinforced the impact of hyper-professionalism and worries about career prospects. The move from macro- to micro-analysis and rational choice theory, which we identify with economics and political science, implicitly–and presumably unintentionally– undercuts the notion of a public or social connection because of its emphasis on individual choice. While scholars in history mock such moves in the social sciences and see themselves as far from those intellectual agendas, there is more similarity and more similar consequences for the notion of a public or society in many recent moves in historiography. The wholesale move away from the study of institutions and particularly institutions of power—namely the state and the economic institutions, particularly corporations—presumes a world of individual actors—or oppressed persons with individual agency. The recovery of the ordinary individual as agent and the oppressed individual—a great accomplishment of the social and cultural history in the past generation—has paid a price: the eclipse of institutions and the social in historiography. And the focus on parts has come at the cost of losing a strong sense of the whole and how large social processes (structures) work.{{21}}

There is also a scale question.{{22}} Micro history, which has greatly enriched historical writing, nonetheless also is representative of the move from grand themes and narratives to individual, small cases. Its finest examples are not only fascinating for the richness of the detail of ordinary life but also for their access to the subjective meanings larger historical phenomena hold for ordinary people. But commonly the larger institutions of power and of culture are not critically examined–nor are questions of causation.{{23}} The weakening of the examination of causation beyond the level of the individual has had serious consequences for the usefulness of academic history.

One of the major contributions of history to the understanding of collective experience has historically been its inclusive (or aspiration to an inclusive narrative) approach to explaining how things work, and holding all of that complexity together depended upon a teleology of progress.{{24}} Traditional historical narrative has always been teleological, whether or not it was intended or acknowledged. But the actual history of the twentieth century has completely undermined the notion of the progressiveness of history or even of any direction at all. The loss of a teleological underpinning has produced a narrative challenge, one that undermines a focus on causation. Adaptations to this crisis in narration has taken various forms: the writing and teaching of history is now as often synchronic as diachronic, is as likely to explore subjective meaning more often than developing interpretations of causation, tends to emphasize the difference of the past more than its premonitory connection to the present and future, ruptures more than continuities, and context more than narrative.{{25}}

The problem of academic history is deeper than excessive specialization. Specialization is not new, and it does not require the avoidance of large themes or the embrace of jargon. It is the questions historians examine and their level of explanation. This has weakened academe’s place in the public sphere. The problem is the narrow questions asked, or the big questions examined in the smallest possible way, resulting in minutiae rather than ideas with consequences. And that happens because the questions asked are taken from the literature of the field, not from the world around us.{{26}} The postwar intellectuals who have counted, whether within academe or beyond, framed expansive questions: the liberal tradition in the U.S., the post-industrial economy, the meaning of economic abundance, the transformation of the family, the dynamics of power in a pluralistic society.

They were focused on issues related to our common culture and common life. The results of such a framing can inspire public discussion and disciplinary advance.{{27}} Of course, most historians and social scientists were not as bold, and we must always acknowledge that the whole structure of disciplinary scholarship depends upon what Thomas Kuhn called “normal science.” But the paradigms are at once more pluralized and much looser in history than in any other social science. And puzzle-solving ought not take up the whole of the discipline, and it need not take up the whole scholarship of any single scholar. Historians can be ambidextrous, technical and bold. When exciting core questions of disciplinary challenge and those of public life converge on a big question, that is the moment to think big in public. Going big can be exciting, just as technical virtuosity can be. Not everyone can be or need be an Arthur Schlesinger or a Richard Hofstadter, who after his dissertation never touched an archival document. But neither should everyone shy away from their boldness, their courage to articulate and embrace a large interpretive narrative intended at once for colleagues and the public.

There is another route to engaging the public—expertise. Such expertise as historians acquire, except in area studies, tends not to be what is usually understood as expertise serving public good. In a moment I will address the development of “public history” as a particular form of historical practice, which cumulatively brings history to more people than university press books and class room teaching combined. But first I want to engage the question of whether the academy rewards historians in public. I think that the fear of non-reward or even reprisal for speaking to and writing for the public is exaggerated.{{28}} Surely if a scholar at the research university published only in non-professional publications, it would be a serious negative. But so long as it does not replace or seriously reduce significant academic publication, I doubt very much that it would do any harm to a career. There is also the “crossover” book; they not only reach a larger public, but they are often particularly important interventions within the profession. In fact, university administrators often value faculty engagement with the community for public relations reasons. In short, I think that institutional disapproval is a lame excuse.

I am more worried about the devaluing of undergraduate teaching at research universities than the risk academics take by being a voice in public.{{29}} And my concern is not entirely focused on the consequences for undergraduates. Devaluing undergraduate teaching marginalizes one of the principal training grounds for finding the concepts and languages by which to connect with the larger culture. It would be a mistake to underestimate value of undergraduate teaching as both a connection with the larger public and its concerns and as a means of teaching us to write or speak beyond the discipline. And if we do our teaching well, we educate students to think about public life and seek out serious magazines, books, and websites—and know how to critique them.

There is an area where access to a public audience is increasingly limited. To put it bluntly, there is, I think, contest (if not a war) mounted by journalists against academics in general, but mostly against historians, for whom the cross over is easier and thus closer in practice to journalism and literary culture. Journalists, who control access to the media, have become competitors rather than collaborators. Or, as they would phrase it, they saw the vacuum created by the inward turn of historians into professional self-enclosure, and they filled it.{{30}} The ratio of academics to journalists published in leading print media has dramatically declined in the past half century.{{31}} And leading journalism schools now have graduate programs in non-fiction writing intended to make journalist-historians.

But this is an issue of the dying of the older public sphere; such editorial control of access is weakening if not wholly dissolving. The new public sphere is still in formation, and I have no clear ideas about how it will develop. But let me play out a couple of generalizations. It is important to note that television is still important. It is a more potent source of public information than the internet. The internet has far more information, but contemporary news programs, as I have already suggested, carry more wallop than most digital sites. That will change, but it should not be written off just yet.

Television is, however, much different than it was in 1960, when there were three networks. I am willing to argue that the public sphere, with television, was in 1960 more like the time when the American Historical Association was formed than it is to the present media-scape. The aspirations of the founders of the American Historical Association in 1884 envisioned a public role in what was a limited public culture that was managed and populated by persons like themselves. They saw themselves as a national elite, even if mostly from the Northeast, and as such they sought and obtained a charter by act of Congress. They located their organization 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. A hundred years ago the comfortable, even unconscious, elitism of even the most democratic academics gave them at once a position of authority in public life and an identifiable audience was in fact the small minority of Americans who were college-educated and those who managed state affairs.{{32}} It is no surprise that the same people who founded the AHA were also leaders in the movement for Civil Service Reform, which would secure power to their students and comrades.

The influence of historians was not so direct as they had imagined it might be, but over the decades historians greatly affected civic life by finding wide readership and the incorporation of their interpretations of American history into the schools and popular thought. Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier thesis is still a part of public life more than a century after it was published, and Charles Beard’s economic interpretation of the Constitution and American politics generally is not dead. By the 1940s, there was very little change in the demographics of the historical profession; their audience was larger but ethnically and regionally similar to the historians, and the level of cultural sophistication was roughly equivalent. This generation of historians had a powerful influence on civic life and the interpretation of American politics in the 1940s and 1950s through their major books with big themes—Arthur Schlesinger, Jr. on the liberal tradition, C. Vann Woodward on race relations, and Richard Hofstadter on the limits of liberalism and the danger of rightwing populism. And the culture industry elite based in New York were easy collaborators. This held until about 1960.

Much of the discussion of the 1960s and academic life focuses on the politics and protest, which is right. But, paradoxically, the disappointments of failed transformation led many of those youthful intellectuals to a turn inward.{{33}} New, more radical topics were pursued, but, as we have already discussed, in ever narrower ways, methodologically and in the scale of framing. Although it is counter-intuitive, we can see the beginnings of present academic practice in the turn from the 1960s to the 1970s.

The media-scape’s transformation is more recent. First it was the proliferation of channels with the advent of pervasive availability of an an ever growing number of cable channels beginning in the 1980s. Now the channels run into the hundreds. News sources are almost unlimited. While this is potentially enriching of the public sphere, it is so only if there is some conversation among the different audiences. But cable has enabled the targeting of specific audiences, partly for commercial reasons. Individuals tend to select the news they wish to read or hear–likewise, cultural programming. There is a leveling process giving legitimation to all and effectively removing hierarchy. There will always be serious drama and opera available, but it will be for a specific audience, just like there will be one for kick boxing. With the advent of the internet, citizens tend to gravitate to the news sources and opinion makers that reinforces their views, effectively promising not to challenge them. Thus there are audiences, but no public.

Not only is news fractionated, but it has also been converted into a form of entertainment that grabs viewers, much more than reading news on a computer screen. Don Hewitt, who invented 60 Minutes, a news program that was entertainment, realized in retirement that there was a cost to his celebrated achievement. In making news a money-maker, he realized that he ruined television news. Television news was no longer a public service.{{34}} That means news programming, like other commercial programming, aims mainly to mobilize audiences to ensure ratings. Viewing this scene, the Economist‘s Tom Standage relishes a revitalized democracy. My less rosy lens makes me see this expanded but highly fractionated media-scape undermining rather than sustaining any form of a public sphere or deliberative democracy. If Godkin worried about the influence of Barnum and Beecher on public culture, one can hardly imagine his possible reaction to the blogosphere. Orthodoxy and opinion reign across the political spectrum. How is the formerly authoritative voice of scholarship to find a place in a media world that thrives on opinion? Indeed, the distinction between opinion and knowledge is blurred if not entirely erased.

How do historians enter such a fragmented increasingly digital space? What role does “public history” play? Prompted in large part by the job crisis in academe that emerged in the early 1970s and is now endemic, many graduate programs in history created a public history track or program. But public history represents more than an expanded job market for historians. Public history puts history into the public realm in two ways. The first program, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, was oriented to policy questions (initially environmental ones) because some of the faculty were actively involved in such work. Most programs, however, looked toward historical societies, historical sites, documentary film making, and archival management. All of these contributed to expanding public historical knowledge. For all of the success of this movement, in all too many departments, including some of those with excellent programs, public history employment for a Ph.D. graduate is considered a form of professional failure, for the adviser as well as the student. Apparently, historians have little or no historical memory of the substantial engagement of historians as reformers, journalists, founders of museums and archives, including the National Archives and advising the National Park Service. In fact, a recent survey shows that the public makes a much stronger connection with history at historic sites and museums than in schools or college.{{35}} A recent American Historical Association Report on Doctoral Education strongly argued for a “big tent” definition of the profession, with multiple career paths, but still the prejudice survives.{{36}}

When we talk about the public sphere, however, we have something broader in mind than the public history movement. We are focused on a place for democratic discussion of issues that matter, places where political and cultural debates shape opinion and ultimately the direction of national life. Our challenge, as I have tried to indicate, is double: we need to work differently as historians and enter the public sphere in ways that connect with the public, with such relevant knowledge as we may possess. But we also have to figure out a yet more difficult question: where in the world is the public sphere?

Perhaps our aspirations are misplaced. Must we publish an op-ed in the New York Times, be interviewed on CNN or Bloomberg News, or have our books reviewed on scores of channels and blogs? Is there a national public sphere? Is it in material space or is it digital? Is it bounded? Global? National? Local? It may be helpful to go back to John Dewey’s passionate rebuttal to Walter Lippmann’s books on public opinion.{{37}} Lippmann, having energetically assisted the Wilson administration propaganda efforts during World War I to manipulate public opinion, had after the war lost faith in the public. He wrote two devastating books in the 1920s: Public Opinion (1922) and The Phantom Public (1925). Modern life, he argued, is too complex for ordinary citizens, who might have managed in Jefferson’s America. He proposed a passive public, managed by plebiscites rather than elections, with the work of governance done by “experts” and “insiders,” the latter of which he considered himself. John Dewey called Lippmann’s Public Opinion “perhaps the most effective indictment of democracy as currently conceived ever penned,” and it prompted him to write a counter to it, The Public and Its Problems (1927).{{38}}

Dewey’s argument in The Public and Its Problems has been criticized for being backward-looking just when mass communication was maturing.{{39}} But with the collapse of the mass communication model of the public sphere, perhaps Dewey’s ideas warrant a new look, something Bruno Latour has been doing lately.{{40}} Dewey did not imagine the public to be a sphere; rather he looked to the public as a purposeful act, an act of coming into political being. The public was enacted, he proposed, when injured third parties emerged to make themselves into a public. He imagined such an occasion when two corporations made an agreement or a corporation and the government made one that injured parties not represented in the negotiations that produced the agreement. This is close to what Latour has in mind when he talks about “matters of concern” around which a public emerges.

Dewey understood this kind of event to be local, enacted in a place.{{41}} Initially, at least, that would a local place. The local politics would educate citizens in democracy, and depending on the issue this discussion might move from the local community to what Dewey called the “Great Community.” In fact, the local act was not the end of the matter for Dewey, nor should it be for historians. The local narrative must be inserted into a national and even global narrative. This links the local, spontaneous public to the formation of a “Great Community” that Dewey assumed would be mobilized on the scale of the national political community—the democratic state. I could elaborate these ideas of Dewey and Latour, but this is enough for our present purposes. If this makes sense, events, inclusive events, not media or intellectuals, make a public sphere. This is not so far from the world of the coffee house and the local newspapers of the Economist writer or, for that matter, Tocqueville’s voluntary associations. It is quite far from the mass communications notion of the public sphere.

With this notion of the public, the historian who wishes to influence the public sphere need not long for acceptance on the op-ed page of the New York Times. She can go on the local radio station or contribute a column to the still remaining local papers, or even start up a local web site addressing the issue that created a public. Richard Rorty complained that in the financial crisis during the 1980s, much good would have been produced if every university economist had provided information and guidance by way of a column in the local newspaper. That may be where the new public sphere begins.

A final point. Dewey had some strong opinions about the appropriate relation of the intellectual, the professor, and such an 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 problems intellectuals should address, Dewey argued, were provided by animating concerns deriving from common life and 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. But, and this is crucial, he or she is a member of the public with special access to a fund of knowledge and rigorous forms of thought that he or she can bring to matters of concern. After exploring the relevant 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. Intellect in public involves listening as well as speaking. 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. And while able to address the kinds of technical issues other social sciences can engage, the narratives constructed by historians do something different and fundamentally important for political action and cultural self-awareness. It is important that history is a mode of scholarship, thinking, and knowledge that is constituted by narratives. Moreover, historical narratives usually locate citizens in time and place. And it is multi-scalar—from the local to larger narratives extending to national and even global scales.{{42}} The challenge historians assume (or should) is to bring into the public a narrative explaining why this happened where, when, and in what way things happened. Such a narrative at its best can suggest possible alternatives, but at a minimum it can demonstrate that neither the past, present, nor future are pre-determined. They are the result of collective choices made. That is politically liberating, if not a precise answer to the challenges presented by matters of concern. Much more than historians offer now, that narrative must locate the political community in its full global context, and it must address institutional forms of power, both of the state and of our economic institutions. That is a lot. Yet a future politics may depend on that.

Initiative on Academia & the Public Sphere

[This essay has been developed from an earlier short post in this forum.]
[[1]] Neal Gabler, “The Elusive Big Idea,” New York Times, August 14, 2011, “Sunday Review,” 1, 6-7. The predictable avalanche of denial appeared in the letters column of The New York Times of August 22, 2011, A18.[[1]]
[[2]] This unexpected endorsement of changes that predict the end of the Economist as it has been known for more than a century may be explained by Standage’s position as digital editor of the Economist.[[2]]
[[3]] “Back to the Coffee House” (lead story); Tom Standage, “Bulletins from the Future,” Special Report, The Economist (July 9th and 15th, 2011), following page 46, quotes from page 16.[[3]]
[[4]] A similar point is made by Jürgen Habermas, “An Avantgardistic Instinct for Relevances: Intellectuals and Their Public,” in this SSRC essay series on “Academia & the Public Sphere.”[[4]]
[[5]] These comments obviously begin with the classic work by Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere, trans. Thomas Burger with assistance of Frederick Lawrence (Cambridge: MIT, 1989). But it also modifies or extends the dimensions of the coffee house world by way of Robert Wuthnow, Communities of Discourse: Ideology and Social Structure in the Reformation, the Enlightenment, and European Societies (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989) and my own manuscript “Cosmopolitan Democracy: Republicanism , Liberalism, and Difference,” chap. 2. [Not forthcoming; it was set aside in 1995, when I became dean for humanities and never subsequently taken out of the box in which it was then stuck.] [[5]]
[[6]] See the classic essay by George Bancroft, “The Office of the People in Art, Government, and Religion,” in Joseph Blau, ed. Social Theories of Jacksonian Democracy (New York, 1954), 263-81. Note also that different situation of contemporary British intellectuals circa 1870 is greatly influenced by the different scales of the political community in the two countries. There were more voters in New York City in 1870 than in all of England, even after the passage of the Second Reform Act in 1867.[[6]]
[[7]] Mainly but not exclusively in the chapter on the tyranny of the majority in his Democracy in America (1835-40).[[7]]
[[8]] James F. Beard, ed. The Letters and Journals of James Finimore Cooper (6 vols.; Cambridge, 1960-68), III,220.[[8]]
[[9]] See Thomas L. Haskell, The Emergence of Professional Social Science (Urbana, 1977).[[9]]
[[10]] See Thomas Bender, Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States (Baltimore, 1994), esp. chap. 3.[[10]]
[[11]] E.L. Godkin, “Professional Guilds,” American Institute of Architects: Proceedings (1870), 192; idem., “The Organization of Culture,” The Nation (June 18, 1868), 486-88.[[11]]
[[12]] In fact, the intellectuals were seeking to establish “monopolies” that would protect them from the intellectual market place. Godkin once fumed about intellectuals having to market his goods much like the dry-goods merchant.[[12]]
[[13]] Quotes from Columbia College, Outline of a Plan for the Instruction of Graduate Classes (New York, 1880), 4, 11, 12, 15.[[13]]
[[14]] A very large number of the first generation of Hopkins Ph.D.s in the social sciences pursued careers in government or full time reform work.[[14]]
[[15]] See Daniel T. Rodgers, Atlantic Crossings: Social Politics in a Progressive Age (Cambridge, MA, 1998); Thomas Bender, A Nation Among Nations: America’s Place in World History (New York, 2006), chap. 5. For philosophers, social scientists, and reformers, see James T. Kloppenberg, Uncertain Victory: Social Democracy and Progressivism in European and American Thought, 1870-1920 (1986).[[15]]
[[16]] Clark Kerr, The Uses of the University (4th ed.; Cambridge, 1995), 142.[[16]]
[[17]] In the case of history, see Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana, 2004), 7-9.[[17]]
[[18]] Some of these intellectuals moved back and forth between high end journalism and academe. Most notable were Daniel Bell and Nathan Glazer.[[18]]
[[19]] On Lasch, see Thomas Bender, “The Historian as Public Moralist: The Case of Christopher Lasch,” Modern Intellectual History , forthcoming.[[19]]
[[20]] On this change, see Thomas Bender and Carl E. Schorske, eds. American Academic Culture in Transformation (Princeton:PUP, 1998). This volume was originally published as an issue of Daedalus, 1997. It has multiple studies of economics, literary studies, philosophy, and political science.[[20]]
[[21]] See Thomas Bender, “Wholes and Parts: The Need for Synthesis in American History,” Journal of American History, 73 (1986), 120-36; Idem., Wholes and Parts: Continuing the Conversation,” ibid., 74 (1987), 123-30.[[21]]
[[22]] For a bit more context for this paragraph, see Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-first Century (Urbana, 2004), 15-17.[[22]]
[[23]] The first widely praised mircohistory, Carlo Ginzburg’s The Cheese and the Worms (1976) translated into English in 1980, remains the best, always keeping in mind the power of a major institution while exploring the particular meanings a single individual gave to the heavens and earth in the face of the Inquisition.[[23]]
[[24]] The best ever example of this was Charles Beard and Mary Beard, The Rise of American Civilization (2 vols., New York, 1927), but Frederick Jackson Turner’s essay on “The Significance of the Frontier in American History,” delivered as a lecture at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893 still echoes through our popular culture, a myth he may have discovered rather than created. Richard Hofstadter’s challenge to Beard in his The American Political Tradition and the Men Who Made It (New York, 1948) provided another large interpretation of the course of American history and the way it worked.[[24]]
[[25]] For a larger context for this paragraph, see Thomas Bender, Philip M. Katz, and Colin Palmer, The Education of Historians for the Twenty-First Century (Urbana, 2004), 15-17.[[25]]
[[26]] I am not proposing an end to engagement with the literature, but I am urging that not all intellectual energies belong there. Our highly developed academic disciplines and the ever growing interdisciplinarity are bigger resources than that—or ought to be.[[26]]
[[27]] Political theorists are still discussing Louis Hartz’s The Liberal Tradition in America (New York, 1955).[[27]]
[[28]] I do know of instances where students with exceptionally good and well written dissertations that would appeal to a commercial publisher have been discouraged on the grounds that it may be a deficit in the eyes of some tenure and promotion committees. I find this quite disturbing, but it seems prevalent enough that I have advised such students of my own to go to a press like Harvard University Press, which has a New York office for precisely that purpose, and markets such books as trade under a university press imprint.[[28]]
[[29]] My own experience is one piece of my evidence. I have for years written as often for newspapers and magazines as for scholarly journals, and I have published about equally with trade publishers and university presses. As many of my public lectures have been at public libraries, meetings of school teachers, and historical societies as at scholarly meetings and conferences. I have also been involved in public positions of reasonable visibility: Chair of the New York Council for the Humanities, Board of the Municipal Art Society, Advisory Committee on Culture and the Arts for a local congressman. I am convinced that I have benefitted within the university for all of the above.[[29]]
[[30]] One reason for this, of course, is the great expansion of academe; even esoteric subfields have enough historians for an association and conferences; in 1950 the numbers of research historians was vastly smaller, and reaching out to other subfields and the public made for a more lively intellectual life.[[30]]
[[31]] An limited study (small N) undertaken by Tracy Neumann at my request examined 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 in 1988, and 2008. Her data show the number of academics and journalists printed in these years. We also compared the presence of sociologists and political scientists in relation to historians; historians were much more prominent. But that is not the concern here. Comparison of number of articles by academics and journalists for selected issues and years (1988/2008): New York Review of Books: Academics 39/35; Journalists 13/37; New York Times Book Review: Academics 75/26; Journalists 85/99; New York Times Op Ed: Academics 8/13; Journalists 2/10.[[31]]
[[32]] For a contemporary description of that version of public culture—including a warning that the new “intellectuals” in New York represent a challenge to academe, see William James, “The Social Value of the College Bred” (1908), in William James, Writings, ed. Bruce Kuklick (1987), 1242-49.[[32]]
[[33]] See Ira Katznelson, “From the Street to the Lecture Hall: the 1960s,” in Bender and Schorske, eds. American Academic Culture in Transformation , 331-52; Thomas Bender, “Politics, Intellect, and the American University, 1945-1995,” in ibid., 17-54.[[33]]
[[34]] See NY Times obit. [[34]]
[[35]] Roy Rosenzweig and David Thelen, The Presence of the Past: Popular Uses of History in American Life (New York, 1998), 20, table 1.2.[[35]]
[[36]] Bender, et. al., The Education of Historians, 65-67.[[36]]
[[37]] For a fuller account, see Thomas Bender, New York Intellect:  Intellectual Life in New York City, from 1750 to the Beginnings of Our Own Time (New York, 1987), 312-316.[[37]]
[[38]] John Dewey, “Public Opinion,” The New Republic (May 3, 1922), 286-88.[[38]]
[[39]] Jean Quandt, From the Small Town to the Great Community: The Social Thought of Progressive Intellectuals (New Brunswick, 1970).[[39]]
[[40]] Bruno Latour, “From Realpolitik to Dingpolitik, Or How to Make Things Public,” in Bruno Latour and Peter Weibel, eds., Making Things Public: Atmospheres of Democracy (Cambridge, 2005); Idem., “Why Has Critique Run Out? From Matter of Fact to Matter of Concern,” Critical Inquiry, 30 (2004), 225-48.[[40]]
[[41]] In his contribution to the SSRC website on the public sphere, Tony Judt makes this important point: place counts in politics.[[41]]
[[42]] See Thomas Bender, “Introduction:  Historians, the Nation, and the Plenitude of Narratives,” in Thomas Bender, ed. Rethinking American History in a Global Age (Berkeley, 2002), 1-21.[[42]]

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