How Podcasts Help Historians “Speak to a Larger Public”Historians in the News
tags: historians, podcasts, public engagement
If you want to get historians angry, accuse them of neglecting “the public.” That’s what happened last week when conservative Washington Post columnist Max Boot placed at least some of the blame for the seeming historical illiteracy of the American public on historians themselves:
As historians Hal Brands and Francis Gavin argue in War on the Rocks, since the 1960s, history professors have retreated from public debate into their own esoteric pursuits…. Historians need to speak to a larger public that will never pick up their academic journals — and students need to grasp the importance of studying history, not only for their own future but for the country’s, too.
I’m certainly not going to quibble with Boot’s challenge to students, though I wish that a column that opened with declining numbersof history majors would pay some attention to the ways that colleges and universities (and their corporate and political partners) are themselves contributing to that trend. And I’m not going to linger on his argument that there’s been an overcorrection to older emphases on military and diplomatic history. Like Boot, I studied those fields at Yale under Paul Kennedy. Unlike him, I find social and cultural history anything but “esoteric” or irrelevant to students.
Mostly, I keep coming back to his notion that historians are disengaged from the larger public. If I’d read Boot’s column twenty years go, when I was in graduate school, or even ten years ago, when I was employed but still charting my own path as a scholar, I might have agreed. It’s taken me that long to unlearn many pathological assumptions elevating academic above “popular” history, and research over teaching (still the most important way that most of us engage with a non-specialist public). I certainly didn’t know many models of public scholarship in my guild.
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