Calling All Professional Historians: 'Come Out of the Ivory Tower"Roundup: Historians' Take
tags: historians, public intellectuals
Jonathan Zimmerman is a professor of history and education at New York University. A former Peace Corps volunteer and high school teacher, Zimmerman is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory and three other books.
“Professors, We Need You!”
So declared a much-discussed column last month by the New York Times’ Nicholas Kristof, who complained that most modern-day academics ignore the lay public. Instead of walling themselves off “like medieval monks,” Kristof wrote, professors should be sharing their knowledge with wider audiences so that it makes a difference in the world.
I’ve been trying to make a similar case to my fellow historians for more than a decade, stressing our duty to serve the public, and it has largely fallen on deaf ears. So lately I’ve been trying a different tack, especially with younger scholars. Although I still believe the public needs you, dear historian, you also need the public. And never more so than right now.
That’s because an increasing fraction of professional historians will not be employed at universities, where traditional tenure-track positions have been in sharp decline. To get jobs, they will need to know how to connect with readers and listeners outside of our guild. All of us know that, at some level, but we haven’t changed our practices in accord with it. We’re like a little boy who is trying to hide and closes his eyes, in the vain hope that nobody will be able to see him....
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