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How Historians Lost Their Public

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Thomas Bender is a professor of history and university professor of the humanities at New York University.

Related Link Historians May Never Rule the World, but Their Models will Rule the Data-Driven Future By Jo Guldi and David Armitage

At the annual meeting of the American Historical Association early this year, several well-attended sessions raised an issue much on historians’ minds: Do we still have a public audience?

Economics has an audience in corporate and government circles; sociology and psychology have important roles in the social services. But historians generally have not had a similar targeted audience, except in schools. They have aspired to reach a general public, to explain the past and its relationship to the present and, perhaps, the future.

While once we were successful in doing that, for a long time we have been digging ourselves into a hole. We’ve been victims of our own success.

In the early 20th century, the Progressive historians, like Frederick Jackson Turner and, especially, Charles A. Beard, brought to a wide public the significance of economic factors and regional politics in the narrative of American history. They were concerned about rampant capitalism, unprecedented inequalities, business-dominated politics, and widespread corruption. The master work of Progressive history, The Rise of American Civilization (two volumes, 1927), by Charles and Mary Beard, offered a comprehensive story of America in compelling prose that stood as the foundation for school textbooks and the public understanding of American history for at least a quarter-century.

Many years later, the historian Herbert G. Gutman longed to expand the narrative of American history to include American laborers, black and white, native and immigrant. But the rich scholarship in social history that he had helped inspire, was, he feared, fragmenting American history: In his introduction to Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America (1976), he lamented that "overspecialization" had fractured both individual experience and a national historical narrative. With some hyperbole, he noted that a biography of an "Irish born Catholic female Fall River Massachusetts textile worker and union organizer involved in the disorderly 1875 strike" would require "nine different specialized substudies." Writing in The Nation in 1981, he worried that for a generation, American history "has been without coherent focus and has lacked compelling central themes." ...

Read entire article at The Chronicle of Higher Education


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