Who Is Our Public?


Who are we trying to reach with our work? (We have all heard the jokes about writing monographs that only a dozen people actually read). More importantly, how do we define our “work” as historians and intellectuals? I have commented on this issue in some of my earlier posts on how to reach Christian America, but the public responsibility of the scholar continues to pop up in my random reading. Here are three recent examples:

A few years ago a friend called my attention to a sentence in George Marsden’s Fundamentalism and American Culture about the death of the conservative Presbyterian theologian J. Gresham Machen. The other day I finally got to read it for myself. Marsden writes: “…Machen died of pneumonia in the winter of 1937 while singlehandedly attempting to rally handfuls of supporters in the Dakotas—an ironic end to a life dedicated to bringing Christianity to the centers of culture.” Now I fully understand Marsden’s point here. Machen was a cosmopolitan and sophisticated Christian intellectual who died in a remote location. But by pointing out the “irony” of the place where Machen died, Marsden makes a huge assumption about who is cultured and who it not. D.G. Hart, in Defending the Faith, his excellent biography of Machen, suggests that Machen’s death was not as ironic as Marsden implies. In fact, despite his superior education and intellectual prowess, Machen went to the people of North Dakota because he believed that the church’s influence must extend to “Christian homes and schools, local communities and voluntary organizations.” Granted, Machen was in North Dakota to rally a church, not to give a Chautauqua-style lecture, but his commitment to these ordinary Presbyterians is still admirable.

Recently I was surfing the web and came across the home page of Ed Linenthal, professor of history and religion at the University of Indiana, editor of the Journal of American History, and one of our finest public historians. Amid the standard biographical information in his profile, I was struck by this line: “I never cared much, however, for disciplinary boundaries, nor for the academic jargon that each discipline seems to prize too much. I was interested in investigating and writing for a larger public about the less examined, that which did not, at first glance, seem ‘religious.’” This, I must admit, was a refreshing comment from the editor of the premier journal of American historical scholarship. The choice of Linenthal to lead the JAH speaks volumes about the kind of work the Organization of American Historians wants to promote.

Last week Jonathan Yardley of the Washington Post reviewed Joseph Ellis’s new book, American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the Republic. Now whatever you think about Ellis and the outrageous lies he told his female students about his Vietnam service, he seems to make a decent point when he writes that most scholarship on the American founding “are in-house affairs, written in language that the uninitiated find inaccessible and often incomprehensible.”

As one who has recently done some lecturing to public audiences, I am becoming more convinced that teaching the complexities of the past in retirement homes, local historical societies, churches, and other civic organizations is a vital part of my vocation as an historian. These audiences are a lot less pretentious than the usual crowd at academic conferences and though they are occasionally misinformed about history they are always eager to learn, discuss, and debate. Historians need to think about how they might serve their communities in this regard and should be supported in their efforts by the academic institutions in which they work. What if colleges and universities counted public lectures, op-ed pieces, blogs, History Day judging, and popular or local history books as part of the “scholarship” component of the tenure process? Do we occasionally need to break free from the “academic jargon” of our professional identities and speak in “accessible” language” to a larger public? North Dakota here we come!


Tim Lacy said…
Dear Mr. Fea,

On your last paragraph, well said! If only we could convince the old guard of the value of those appearances, lectures, and alternative audiences. This is a structural problem, and who are the key members of that structure? Perhaps the cohort holding those rigid beliefs will be retiring soon?

- TL
Art Remillard said…
On your mention of the blog, I've been wondering about that too. On the one hand, I'm betting the readership of this blog is larger than most academic journals. On the other, this one lets nut jobs like myself post...