Saturday, January 19, 2013

Defining Public History

A few days ago Mary Rizzo, the Associate Director of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, set off a small brushfire in the public history community when she suggested that television personality Jon Stewart may be a public historian.  Here is a taste of her post at History@Work:

The New York Times blog recently posted a piece about the recent AHA conference in New Orleans. Touching briefly on panels about horses and trash in history, the author pauses momentarily to describe a discussion about “The Public Practice of History in a Digital Age.” While debate ensued over the status of narrative in the discipline, the academic monograph as “fetish object” in Claire Potter’s words, and how what counts for tenure may be hamstringing the profession, the panelists came to agree on one thing: Jon Stewart is a public 

Why? Because he is good at “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past.”

So, is Jon Stewart a public historian?

Erik Greenberg, the Director of Education at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles, responded to this question with a definitive "no":

No, he is not. He might be described more accurately as a public intellectual (although intellectuals are, or should be, by definition publicly minded so the term is redundant). But a public historian should be someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian. So if Stewart, or Spielberg, etc. have studied history carefully, understood the intellectual and evidentiary rigor demanded of an historian, and then continue with their work as filmmakers, pundits, etc., THEN they are public historians.

Frankly the AHA’s agreement that Stewart is a public historian demonstrates what little regard they have for the field. 

And now Steven Lubar, director of the public humanities program at Brown, has weighed in:

Let’s think about a “big tent” definition of public historian. Limiting it to “someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian” leaves out some of the best and most interesting work – and makes for a pretty boring field. It says, do history our way, the academic way, and then we’ll keep you in our club. What if we defined it to include community historians, enthusiastic amateurs, popular writers, genealogists? We academically trained historians might learn a lot – as well as reach a larger audience. If our goal is to encourage the public to use the past to think about the present and future – I think that’s a fair definition of the purpose of public history – then we want to include all (or at least most) of those folks that Mary RIzzo illustrates above. It’s about ends, not means, and certainly not about technique, practice, or (above all!) being able to write in a really boring way.

So what do you think?  How do we define public history?