Changing the Discipline

It would appear that public historians have much to celebrate.

First, the field is growing. In recent years, there has been marked expansion in public history education.  When I last counted in early 2012, there were about 160 programs listed on the website of the National Council on Public History. Today there are over 200, and a small but significant number are outside of North America.  While it is fair to say that public history has long been seen as an American phenomenon –distinct from heritage preservation or museum studies which have deep international roots– new leaders in Amsterdam, Italy, and elsewhere are working to change that; They launched the International Federation for Public History in 2010.

Second, public history is moving from the margins to the center of the discipline. This is not significant because it means public history is suddenly a legitimate endeavor –it has been for at least one hundred years whether recognized by academics or not. Rather, it is significant because it suggests public history is beginning to have a meaningful impact on how all historians are trained and how they practice.

Third, and related, the broad changes public historians (may) make to historical practice have been sanctioned –at least in part– by the discipline’s leaders. For decades, academic departments have struggled to understand how public history fits in the traditional measures of professional success. They sought rubrics and equivalencies to figure out if an exhibit is the same as a book, an administrative history is the same as an article. The conversation shifted in 2010. The Organization of American Historians, the American Historical Association, and the National Council on Public History issued a joint report on Tenure, Promotion, and the Publicly Engaged Academic Historian, suggesting that the standard triumvirate –research, teaching, and service– is not so easily differentiated. To the extent that the report has made a difference in tenure and promotion decisions –I believe it did in mine– it is also making a difference in how academic departments of history view themselves.

Finally, both the Organization of American Historians and (to a lesser extent) the American Historical Association have returned to the idea that preparing students for alternatives to academic employment is not only ethical but also necessary for the health of the discipline. This was precisely the issue addressed by OAH Executive Director Katherine Finley in the November 2012 issue of Outlook, the organization’s newsletter.

But, all of this success raises other, thorny, and less-well-articulated questions.

What can we do to make sure that all of our success in transforming the discipline of history does not change the field of public history in ways we neither intend nor want?

Will the expansion of academic training in public history mean that there will be more and more public history educators who have never been practitioners?

Could increasing the profile of public history scholarship unintentionally create a new rift –or simply a different fault line– between academics and practitioners?

As public historians’ commitment to civic engagement and (for many of us) social justice are absorbed into University trends like service learning or community engagement will public history become implicated in shoring up traditional institutional structures and lose its potential to foment real change?

We are all historians, but I’m not sure that means we are all public historians.