History and the Public

This class, and the community work I’ve done for this class, has raised an issue that I believe is implicit within the very structure of our projects. To engage with “History Beyond the Classroom” I believe belies a problem with the way that history within the academic world is being done, namely; that historians have become too isolated within their ivory towers, too structured in their intellectual pursuits and too disengaged with a public who would otherwise exist as very receptive audience as it comes to historical works. This is not to say that the work done by historians is not important, otherwise in writing this I somewhat shoot myself in the foot. Nor is it to suggest that academic historians do not produce publically influential work, Tony Judt’s ‘Postwar’ was a NY times bestseller, Foucault’s work remains a penguin classic and Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States’ is a quotable moment in Good Will Hunting (itself a brilliant film). But it is to suggest that in the absence of professionally trained historians presenting to the public a history that is cogent, engaging, accessible and well written, it is left to others to fill the gap.
Far be it from falling prey to elitism in this regard, as perhaps university students and professors are prone to do. But Peter FitzSimmon’s ‘Gallipoli,’ Rebecca Scoot’s ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ and the ever entertaining Bill O’ Reilly’s book ‘Killing Reagan,’ to name but a few, can be said to exist as reaction to the absence of accessible and engaging works of history written by practicing historians. Again, this is not to say that these works are not valid, or valuable – in O’Reilly’s case I’m sure there exists some comedic value – but that these writers perhaps fall prey to some of the theoretical assumptions that are made by those who have not been professionally trained. FitzSimmon’s belief that he can tell “what happened,” and let people draw their conclusions from what he writes, may ring alarm bells in a historian’s head, and for good reason. It is not for nought that we may be wary of those who claim objectivity, especially if we can very easily see otherwise.
Not to sell short popular histories either. They themselves have a long history and are undeniably important, no question. In fact historical fiction has long existed as an engaging way of both teaching and learning history, Tolstoy’s War and Peace is perhaps the most brilliant in this regard. And, speaking personally, the Horrible History series is what engaged an 8 year old me in history. But I wonder if there something to be said in attempting to reengage with the public, as academics and as writers. To “sit in Ivory towers” and write academic pieces almost solely for an audience of academics and students, remains, in my mind, an exercise in elitism. I believe that what individuals like Bruce Baskerville, and Peter Hobbins do is not public history in actuality but just history. Public history has become a name we, perhaps condescendingly in many cases, must give their work because the academia has long ignored the very subject it’s studying; the public sphere. In my opinion, this is not the role of history. Historians must be engaged, not simply for political reasons, for history has always been a political weapon – Prime Minister Netanyahu this week past stating that it was the Grand Mufti of Israel, Amin al-Husseini who ‘put the idea of the holocaust in the head of Hitler’ is a good example of this. But because historians risk becoming irrelevant to the public should we abscond into obscurity.
Anyway, just some food for thought.

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