Do Historians Have Special Insights About the News?
Historians and the American people have always had a vexing relationship. They need each other, but their interest in history springs from different sources. The public looks to the nation's past to validate its core ideals and affirm a record of progress and accomplishment. Historians, at one time willing to lend their pens to celebration, more recently have preferred to question familiar accounts and throw light on unknown historical figures.
The public yearns for accessible narratives; historians like to explore the complex, historical roots of issues. General readers tend to resist new findings that unsettle conventional wisdom; historians delight in new evidence and new arguments. From the public's point of view, revisions in chemistry represent advances in science; revisions in history, ideological manipulations.
These differences may be hard to bridge, but increasingly many historians have begun to take seriously the task of reaching beyond their classrooms. Our experience over the last five years with the History News Service -- an informal syndicate of professional historians who write op-ed pieces that set current events in their historical contexts -- tells much about the successes and pitfalls of engaging the public in the past. Even without the events of September 11, we would want to draw the lessons from our experience. Now, as Americans show how hungry they are for a better understanding of why events happen, history becomes all the more important.
From the earliest days of English settlement, historians helped to form an American understanding of the New World. The greatest of them, the Massachusetts Puritans John Winthrop and Cotton Mather, sought to convince their followers that the history of their infant colony bore a historical significance different from that of any previous human society. Years later, the nation's revolutionary leaders turned to historical accounts to explain how 13 British colonies had become a distinctive nation founded upon unprecedented principles. In the 19th century, America's first professional historian, George Bancroft, searched the archives of Europe for documents that might confirm that uniqueness.
One hundred years later, such an approach seemed so much patriotic bombast; instead, historians endorsed objective scholarship and worked to free the nation's history from mythic narrative. That change, of course, came with costs: a widening gulf between historians and a potentially huge audience.
In 1996, growing complaints from all sides about that gap led us to set up the History News Service. Its operations are quite simple. It solicits 800-word articles from historians and distributes them by e-mail to roughly 300 daily newspapers and wire services, those that, unlike The New York Times, do not require exclusive, one-time publication rights. HNS articles have appeared in most of the nation's major dailies, but perhaps the most avid consumers have been the editors of small-town and regional newspapers, which are starved for fresh, free copy for their readers.
The aims of the news service are limited and focused. It distributes only articles that use history to thicken understanding of current events, nothing else. It tries to affect the content, not the manner, of public discussion by introducing history into it.
As our writers have learned, some with much frustration, op-ed writing, like monograph writing, is a distinct art form. It requires clarity of expression, economy of words, and tight argument. Some little-known historians have proved masters of the form; some well-known historians have failed in the effort. Expertise with a book or journal essay is no guarantee of success.
We have been reminded that informed readers are not lacking in intelligence, only in knowledge, and not always that. They cannot be patronized, and op-ed pieces cannot be teacherly. Argument, not posture, is central. Terms like"hermeneutics" and"postcolonial," which try to overawe with false authority, or blustering adjectives like"outrageous" and pejorative adverbs like"ignorantly," have to give way to straightforward analysis.
Our experience also suggests what is wrong with the current debate about so-called public intellectuals. It is fashionable to charge that there are too few of the species, because knowledge has become too academic in origins and presentation. When dealing with history, the assumption seems to be that academic and public scholarship are two very different vocations, carried out by two very different groups of people. (Indeed, too many graduate programs in public history are premised on the belief that one is either an academic or a public historian, not both.) But one can surely be both, from within or without academic walls. While a large proportion of those who have written for us are academics, when they write op-ed pieces, they are serving as public intellectuals. If more scholars would show the ability -- and willingness -- to write at different times for different audiences, it would go a long way to diffuse the debate over public intellectuals.
Clearly, the public is eager to read opinion pieces that bring expert knowledge to bear on current issues. Our writers tell us that they hear, sometimes loudly, from readers from every corner of the land and from all walks of life. Recently, for example, many readers took sharp issue with the effort of one of our writers to compare the events of September 11 to the attack on Pearl Harbor 60 years ago. Such comparisons don't always sit well with groups -- like veterans -- who were involved in the events discussed. Nor do op-ed pieces that propose, on historical grounds, to do away with the electoral college go over with readers in small states. That's not unusual. Perhaps because most of our writers are teachers, they seem to enjoy the give-and-take of criticism. Perhaps, too, they agree with the old adage that it's better to be notorious than not noticed at all.
Not surprisingly, the news service is affected by events. September 11 elicited more op-ed submissions than ever before, most of them from historians who had previously never sent us anything. One early and prescient piece argued that the British and Soviet experiences in Afghanistan did not predict American failure there, because of differences in the historical situations. Several authors saw dangers to civil liberties in the Bush administration's measures to combat terrorism, drawing parallels to the infamous"Palmer raids" of 1919, carried out under the shadow of anti-radical hysteria and considered by many scholars a black mark on our past. Another reminded us of the effort to capture Pancho Villa in 1916 and warned of making Osama bin Laden an anti-hero. All the articles were apposite. All got ink.
The History News Service is just one of an increasing number of endeavors to put historical knowledge in digestible form before the public. A similar venture is Talking History, a lively weekly half-hour public-radio program produced by Bryan Le Beau and his colleagues at Creighton University. In a sign that historians are not alone in sensing a"market" for historical knowledge, the Newhouse newspapers have recently established a"history beat" and assigned a reporter, Delia M. Rios, to it. The historian and journalist Richard Shenkman has also established the History News Network, a lively Web-based source of historical news and commentary.
There is more to be done. American colleges and universities, whose faculty members discover and create most new historical knowledge, do little to bring that knowledge to the attention of the general public through the media outlets -- newspapers and radio or television programs and, increasingly, the Web --that the public depends upon. Neither do scholarly and professional associations, nor the editors of the journals in which so many new interpretations appear. What would happen if those editors were to alert newspaper editors and media producers to the significance of some of their articles? To our knowledge, no one is yet making the attempt.
Complacency about the modest progress of modest efforts like ours would be misplaced. While such endeavors have begun to create a new relationship between historians and a popular audience, more scholars, and more of the institutions they work in, need to increase their inventiveness and their experiments to reach larger audiences. And so, no doubt, do all people who create and disseminate knowledge in all disciplines.
This piece was first published by the Chronicle of Higher Education and is reprinted with permission.
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