Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

Historians and the Public

by Jonathan Zimmerman - November 13, 2006

If we really want to improve historical understanding in this country, we’ll create new venues—and new incentives—for public engagement and instruction. Or we can continue to speak exclusively with each other, acting shocked—shocked!—when nobody else understands us.

Hey, check out those yahoos down in Florida!

Can you believe it?

What a joke!


Those are the types of words we’ve heard from my fellow historians about a recent Florida law, which declared that “American history shall be viewed as factual, not constructed.” And the historians are right: the measure reflects a profound and troubling ignorance about the rules, logic, and structure of our discipline. It also fits snugly into a liberal caricature of the South and especially of Florida, where—snicker, snicker—the president’s own brother signed the measure into law.

But here’s one thing you won’t hear from historians: this whole sordid episode is also—in large part—our fault. That’s right: it’s our fault. For the past four decades, most professional historians have simply ignored the lay public. And the public has returned the favor, displaying little real interest—and even less understanding—about what we actually do. Make no mistake about it: the Florida law is indeed a joke. But the joke, dear historians, is on us.


Once upon a time, the leading members of our discipline wrote books for popular consumption. Charles and Mary Beard, the most original historians of the early 20th century, authored a Book-of-the-Month bestseller; they also wrote several successful school textbooks. So did Carl Becker, another giant of the era, whose own textbook was dedicated to “all teachers…who have endeavored to increase knowledge and promote wisdom in the world.”1


At mid-century, too, top historians like Henry Steele Commager, Oscar Handlin, and Richard Hofstadter cultivated a lay audience. To these authors, democratic citizenship demanded historical awareness; so they purposefully pitched their books at average citizens. They also provided devastating critiques of American habits and institutions, belying our own facile caricature of Cold War intellectual life. In the American Political Tradition (1948), for example, Hofstadter claimed that the founding fathers disdained democracy, that Abraham Lincoln was a raw opportunist, and that Theodore Roosevelt pandered to big business. And his book sold over a million copies!2


Then came the 1960s and 1970s, when historians brought a new and welcome attention to formerly neglected groups of Americans—especially women, immigrants, and blacks. Condemning the “top-down” approach of our predecessors, we resolved to write a “history from the bottom up.” It would be a “people’s history,” we said, resplendent with the wondrous diversity and complexity of America itself.


But it turned out that the people themselves wanted more books about the founding fathers, Lincoln, and Roosevelt. And into that breach stepped a new generation of journalist-historians such as David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin, who wrote grand, best-selling narratives about Great White Men (and, sometimes, Great White Women). The rest of us toiled away on narrow case studies of New England millworkers and Southern sharecroppers, selling a thousand or so copies of each one—if we were lucky.


What if you gave a history party and nobody came? “People’s history” generated astute, original insights about our nation and also about our discipline, which is never—I repeat, never—about “facts” alone; by necessity, the selection and arrangement of new facts will spawn new interpretations. By and large, however, historians reserved these interpretations for each other. And we ceded popular history to the likes of McCullough and Goodwin, who often put eulogy and celebration over critique and analysis.


To be sure, some professional historians continued to write for lay readers; think of my New York University colleague Linda Gordon or of Princeton historian James McPherson, whose Civil War epic Battle Cry of Freedom spent 16 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list. But as McPherson himself has written, academics started to give him the cold shoulder as soon as his book got hot.3 If any old Joe can understand you, after all, how deep can you be? Let the laypeople eat cake! Or let them read it down at the local Borders or Barnes and Noble courtesy of David McCullough and Doris Kearns Goodwin.


And for those who prefer their history on TV, there’s always Ken Burns and the History Channel. Wags call it “the Hitler Channel,” thanks to its frequent Greatest-Generation footage about World War Two. At least 83 million Americans subscribe to the History Channel; over 70 million have watched Burns’ moonlight-over-magnolias rendition of the Civil War.4 You want to know what the public wants from history? War and more war! Maybe that explains why we’re still fighting in Iraq…


The problem with this liberal anti-populism, as I call it, is that it neglects our duty to enlighten the populace. If Americans think history is just about wars—or, even worse, just about facts—then professional historians need to convince them otherwise. We can do that by writing for newspapers, magazines, and websites; by consulting for museums and film companies; and even by producing books for—imagine!—a lay audience.


Or, we can pay more sustained and scholarly attention to our captive audience: that is, to our students. At the most basic level, the new Florida law reflects the astonishingly poor quality of history instruction in the United States. I would assume that most of the people who voted for the law graduated from college, and that most of them took at least one history course. But they didn’t learn much.


And that, too, is our own fault. According to a 1999 survey of 595 American graduate students in history, just 2.7 percent of them received any kind of formal training in how to teach.5 Is it any wonder, then, that many of us have no idea what we’re doing in the classroom? Or that our students often come away thinking that history is just about “facts,” even when it isn’t?


Worst of all, we still don’t have a system to evaluate and reward good history teaching. Instead, we penalize it! From “Research One” universities to liberal arts colleges, the best single predictor of your rank and salary is the fraction of your time that you spend doing research. The more time you devote to teaching, meanwhile, the worse your chances are for tenure, promotion, and raises.6 Until that changes, nothing will: Americans won’t know a lot of history because it won’t be in historians’ interest to teach them.


So the choice, my fellow historians, is pretty clear. If we really want to improve historical understanding in this country, we’ll create new venues—and new incentives—for public engagement and instruction. Or we can continue to speak exclusively with each other, acting shocked—shocked!—when nobody else understands us. Hey, check out those arrogant, insular historians! The more we ignore the public, the more ignorant the public will become.


1. Ellen Nore, Charles A. Beard: An Intellectual Biography (Carbondale, Ill.: Southern Illinois University Press, 1983), 124-127; Carl L. Becker, Modern History (New York: Silver Burdett, 1931), iii.

2. Richard Hofstadter, The American Political Tradition (New York: Knopf, 1948); David S. Brown, Richard Hofstadter: An Intellectual Biography (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2006), 62-63; Ian Tyrrell, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890-1970 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2005), 240-241.

3. Linda Gordon, The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999); James M. McPherson, Battle Cry of Freedom (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988); James M. McPherson, “What’s the Matter with History?,” 22 January 1997, www.princeton.edu/~paw/archive_old/PAW96-97/08-0122/0122feat.html, accessed Nov. 6, 2006.

4. Ian R. Tyrrell, “Historians and Publics in the Early Televisual Age: Academics, Film, and the Rise of Television in the 1950s and 1960s,” Maryland Historian 30 (Spring 2006), 57; Gary R. Edgerton, Ken Burns’s America (New York: Palgrave, 2001), 2.

5. Chris M. Goode, "The Career Goals of History Doctoral Students: Data from the Survey on Doctoral Education and Career Preparation," Perspectives 39 (Oct. 2001), 23, quoted in David Pace, "The Amateur in the Operating Room: History and the Scholarship of Teaching and Learning," American Historical Review 109 (Oct. 2004), 1186n37.

6. Jonathan Zimmerman, "It's Time to Give Teaching More Weight," Christian Science Monitor, 14 March 2006.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: November 13, 2006
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 12838, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 5:40:33 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Article Tools
Related Articles

Related Discussion
Post a Comment | Read All

About the Author
  • Jonathan Zimmerman
    New York University
    E-mail Author
    JONATHAN ZIMMERMAN teaches education and history at New York University. He is the author of “Innocents Abroad: American Teachers in the American Century,” which was published last month by Harvard University Press.
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue