Saturday, April 12, 2014

Riffing on a Few Tweets From the "Historians and Their Publics" Plenary Session

Salon D was packed out yesterday afternoon for the plenary session of the Organization of American Historians: "Historians and Their Publics."  OAH president Alan Kraut moderated a session that included  Spencer Crew, Sean Wilentz, Jill Lepore, and Shola Lynch.  Rather than write a report of the panel, I thought I would use a few of my tweets to frame some thoughts.  Here goes:

TWEET: "Live tweeting plenary session 'Historians and Their Publics.' Kristof op-ed framing the discussion so far."
As might be expected, Kristof's New York Times op-ed "Professors, We Need You" was on everyone's mind. Kraut used the piece to frame the conversation. I am on record saying that Kristof's piece is on the mark, but I would really like to know what Lepore thought about it. (She is mentioned in the piece as someone who is connecting with public audiences). At one point during the session she said that scholars have retreated into the ivory tower, suggesting that she might believe that Kristof has identified a problem.

TWEET: "Lepore sees her writing as extension of her teaching. Developing students in skills of historcial thinking."
Wilentz also affirmed this. I am not sure how often Lepore and Wilentz teach, but those scholars in the proverbial "trenches" who teach 4-4 loads (or more) are our most important public historians. K-12 teachers as well.

TWEET: "Lepore: So many historians think that to do public history is to somehow to engage in politics. More to this than just punditry"
This led to an interesting conversation. Lepore tried to separate what she does in The New Yorker and elsewhere from political punditry (although a lot of her public writing has an obvious political edge). Wilentz saw no need to do so. As someone who writes the occasional op-ed or politically-charged blog post, I often struggle with this issue. Do I have to take off my "historian" hat and put on my "pundit" hat whenever I write an op-ed piece? Wilentz admitted that there was a fundamental difference between writing scholarly essays/books and writing opinion pieces, but he did not think the difference was very great. He argued for what might be called a "historically informed punditry." (This is not unlike what the History News Service has been trying to do).

TWEET: "Wilentz describes old magazines like the New Republic as "gladiatorial." Extolls these kinds of mags as way to reach the public."
Wilentz likes to write for the magazines read by America's educated class. So does Lepore. She extolled the essay as the best way to reach public audiences. While both of these excellent public scholars reach a much larger audience than most historians (and should be commended for doing so), their understanding of "the public" is very narrow. It struck me that no one in the room acknowledged the assumptions about social class (and I am talking here about "class" as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one) that pervaded much of what Lepore and Wilentz had to say. For example, most Americans do not read The New Republic or The New Yorker. The overwhelming majority of the American public might ask "Who is Jill Lepore?" or "Who is Sean Wilentz?" How does one reach people like my Dad--a man without a post-secondary education who gets most of his history from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? What about the millions of evangelical Christians who get their history from David Barton? Reaching these Americans requires a very different approach to what it means to be a "public intellectual." Spencer Crew (museum educator) and Shola Lynch (documentary film maker) seemed to have a much more expansive view of "the public."

TWEET: "Lepore talks about her tea party book. Says she felt a 'chill' from the historical profession. She was told it was a waste of time."
I really liked The Whites of Their Eyes and gave it a lot of attention here at the blog.  I think it is unfortunate that so many historians blasted the book.  It was a great attempt to address the way history is being used (and abused) in the public.  Did Lepore waste her time writing about the Tea Party's use and abuse of history?  Absolutely not.  The criticism she received by some members of the historical profession reveal an unwillingness to engage with cultural or political movements that are perceived to be anti-intellectual or not worthy of their time.  This is unfortunate.

My critique of The Whites of Their Eyes is different than the criticism offered by others in the historical profession.  Lepore's book is a good start, but it did very little to help the Tea Party develop a more nuanced interpretation of American history.  I am not sure that many rank and file Tea Partiers read the book (but I could be wrong).  Few of them would listen to a Harvard history professor anyway.  So who did read The Whites of Their Eyes?  I am guessing that the readers of the book were people who already agree with Lepore about the Tea Party's misuse of history.  It is likely that these readers might use the book for further ammunition in attacking the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party. 

In other words, Lepore was using her Princeton University Press book to preach to the choir.  Did it really change hearts and minds?  If not, what might it take to do so?  These are the questions we should be asking. Rather than using our "superior" intellectual to savage those who may not see the power of a well-crafted historical argument, we should be thinking about the most effective ways of teaching those outside of our classrooms how to make such an argument.  In the process we might succeed in winning some of them over.