William Cronon: Why We Should Avoid an Overly-Narrow Definition of "Professional History"

Roundup: Talking About History

William Cronon (Univ. of Wisconsin–Madison) is the president of the AHA.

...Given the immense public appetite for history, and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of "professional history" could not be more clear.

This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch on boredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let's ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.

This is also why professional historians who work in the academy should be immensely grateful when they are joined in an organization like the AHA by professional historians who make documentaries, design web sites, post blogs, curate exhibits, teach school, and publish popular books. Only if we all gather together under the same big tent will we be able to learn from each other the ways good history can be more effective in reaching the many audiences that hunger for its insights. Forty million people watched Ken Burns's documentaries on The Civil War. Barbara Tuchman probably influenced more people's understanding of the First World War than any other historian of her generation. Public school teachers shape the historical consciousness of many millions more students (and citizens) than college teachers ever will. And so on and on.

How do we avoid professional boredom? By making sure we don't define "professional" too narrowly. By not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history. By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.

And: by never forgetting that our first and most important job—the one on which all others depend—is to make the past come alive for nonprofessionals who would otherwise find it dry, dead, . . . and boring.

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