Dwight Pitcaithley: A Historian's Take on the National Park Service





Once a decision is made, it's left to the historians to decide how sound it was. After all, history can speak volumes. It can point to incredibly great decisions, as well as point out some horrendous ones.

Dr. Dwight Pitcaithley's lengthy National Park Service career wrapped up with a decade during which he served as the agency's chief historian. Now retired and teaching at New Mexico State University, Dr. Pitcaithley recently was interviewed by the Thunderbear, a web-zine whose self-described task is"to protect the protectors of the environment: park rangers, forest rangers, scientists, managers, and others engaged in defending public lands against rapacious developers, special interest groups and their politician friends."

Here are some snippets from that interview, which you can find in its entirety at this site. The questions were posed by Thunderbear's overseer, P.J. Ryan, a former ranger.

Dwight, you identify yourself as a"public historian." What exactly is a public historian?

The term public historian was coined around 1980 to describe historians whose primary audience is public rather than academic. So, historians who teach at colleges and universities are generally termed academic historians while those who work at historic sites, museums, archives and other places where the public is the primary audience are termed public historians. That is not to say, however, that academic historians cannot work in the public realm, and, of course, many of them do.

Do public historians get into trouble more often than academic historians?

Probably, but that depends on your definition of"trouble." Academic historians generally operate within an environment of freedom of thought and expression, although they, too, often run afoul of the"thought police." Public historians are more vulnerable to public criticism because they are more exposed to the public and do not enjoy the cover of academic freedom, although, of course, they should. Frankly, getting into trouble is not necessarily a bad thing. If a member of the public complains about an historical interpretation at a public site, it means two things: 1) that person cares about history, and 2) someone is paying attention to your presentation of the past. I would be more concerned if the public never complained about the discussion of history in public places.


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