public sociology. Public and applied history. Public Humanities. Science in the public interest. In all disciplines, we hear renewed calls for an active public role of academics. We also hear occasional warnings. It’s encouraging — and necessary in our world of misinformation and division — but it’s also discouraging.
My reservations stem from the constant need of supporters of interdisciplinarity who announce themselves publicly to reinvent themselves, as if we had not seen important historical precedents. The fact is, we could probably establish a documented cycle, like a sine curve, of recurring calls for knowledge “applied” to non-academic fields since at least the 1960s. The imperative to promote oneself with false claims of originality is as much a weakness as a strength. It also denies the ability to learn from past successes and failures.
Take my own discipline of history as a prominent example. Public history dates well back to the 19th century with historians engaged in the founding and operation of historical societies, museums and libraries, from local to national. It also includes story-aware journalists who seek to inform their readers appropriately. And, of course, both scholars and other writers have published popular history in various forms. The same goes for scientists, sociologists, political scientists and others.
To some extent, opportunities and practices have changed with the creation and expansion of the doctorate. as a distinct – though never completely exclusive – rite of passage to “practice” history publicly or privately within the confines of universities. It served to distinguish the academic from the layman by formalizing and separating professional disciplines.
Yet, by dint of activities, history — and the sciences too, as distinct disciplines or collectively — have never ceased their public dimensions. While the Ph.D. became a more common keeper, it was never an exclusive requirement. From the late 19th to the early 21st century, non-academic institutional and popular writing roles increased. They included founders and managers of museums and historical and artistic societies, popular writers and journalists, political advisers and others. They have embraced non-academic or trans-academic participation in social, political, and cultural commentary and critique, and formal and informal participation in policy analysis. For some, “public” has become “applied”.
For better or for worse, the disciplines made public have also responded to pressures, sometimes crises, from specific periods. From the late 1960s to the 1980s – and never stopping – the lack of entry-level jobs for new doctoral students. graduates have led campaigns to expand and create public employment opportunities. Combined with periodic crusades to make the “practice of history” more “relevant” and/or a lucrative business, these efforts illustrate the best and worst of being made public.
On the one hand, the most severe periods of academic employment crisis have led to frantic efforts by private and private entities to employ their “own historian” and sometimes to corresponding attempts to commercialize history. in the form of print, audio, video and physical objects. On the other hand, we have seen a relatively small number of top-notch public history graduate and certificate programs that have produced leaders in the field.
We are now witnessing a recurrence of new and persistent job shortages, as well as layoffs and threats of censorship – i.e. violations of freedom of expression –and the efforts needed to apply scholarly knowledge to combat dangerous misinformation combine with sometimes outrageous self-promotional agendas. Today’s intemperate false competition between the professionally documented and reviewed “1619 Project” and the fringe ideological and anti-historical projects “1620”, “1776” and “1836” for “cancellation” and teaching an inclusive American history based on facts dramatically illustrates this.
Responsible professionals must respond to direct stimuli with new initiatives, as well as learn and maintain old ones. These vary widely, as the available literature on public history illustrates: local, community and urban histories; stories of social groups of all kinds; archiving; and alternative ways of presenting research results. In doing so, we must be fully aware of the changing media and communications environment. We have a lot to learn.
In an opinion essay that lacks historical context, “I like public humanities, but,” Faisal G. Mohamed complains that “carelessly instituted, they can threaten the discourse of professors and encourage the hunt for money”. Surprisingly, Mohamed seems unaware that anything he identifies is new, including free speech issues (remember McCarthyism, civil rights, anti-war activists, women’s rights and, recently, the “conservatives”). Nor is the temptation to turn going public into what he awkwardly describes as “cash hunting” by universities seeking to attract new donors and shift institutional spending. In reality, and contradictorily, this has only become a problem with right-wing foundations.
Everything he calls “many great initiatives” like education in prisons, K-12 outreach or engagement with libraries, galleries and museums have set precedents. His example of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ initial tenure denial at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill does not apply; she was not a professional academic. His case is different. It was fair of him to observe, “I’m afraid that universities… will find a way to ‘get the job done’,” but that’s not a new fear. I can testify to obstacles and institutional contradictions throughout my nearly 50-year academic career, a career that has often mixed scholarly and public pursuits.
I call today for a renewed set of initiatives by scholars from all disciplines made public. First, we must learn from our history, successes and failures as suggested above. Part of this involves the means of communication, part of the modes of rhetorical expression and part of it means being ready to challenge and correct the near total lack of historical memory of politicians and the media. Second, we must work together within and across disciplinary lines – call it interdisciplinary, transdisciplinary, or intra- or extra-disciplinary, as you like. The complications of society today are not defined by disciplines.
Finally, researchers from different specializations need to work together to break down the artificial barriers of different bodies of knowledge and address common public issues, problems and needs. Taking these steps will finally fulfill the promise of more than a century of initiatives and will also intersect significantly with other contemporary discussions of disciplines and interdisciplines – equality and equity, and private and public, among many others.