Historian (of retirement age, not retired)
Area of Research: American history, 1765-1865; historiography; the history and state of the discipline of history
Education: B.A. Yale 1957, Ph.D. Columbia, 1968
Revising History: Why Historians Change Their Interpretations of the Past (book, in progress)
Being a Historian: A Preface to the Professional World of History (book, forthcoming)
A Century of American Historiography, ed. James M. Banner, Jr. (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2010)
Becoming Historians, ed. with John R. Gillis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009)
The Elements of Learning, with Harold C. Cannon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1999)
The Elements of Teaching, with Harold C. Cannon (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1997)
Understanding the American Experience: Recent Interpretations, ed. with Barton J. Bernstein and Sheldon Hackney (2 vols.; New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973)
Blacks in America: Bibliographical Essays, with James M. McPherson, Laurence B. Holland, Nancy J. Weiss, and Michael D. Bell (Garden City: Doubleday, 1971)
To the Hartford Convention: The Federalists and the Origins of Party Politics in Massachusetts, 1789-1815 (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1969)
I resist the labels applied in our time to historians and do so because those labels do not accurately reflect the realities of historians’ careers. In fact, from what we’re learning from new research about the discipline of history in the United States, they probably never did.
I spent the first twenty years of my career as an academic historian—as a scholar and teacher. I have ever since felt and thought like an academic and have always remained active as scholar and teacher. The world of learning is my home. Since leaving Princeton, I have been termed, not inaccurately, a public historian for being the creator of a (failed) humanities organization, a book publisher, and an official foundation—all non-academic posts, all allowing me to remain a historian. And for the last fifteen years, I have been termed, again not inaccurately, an unaffiliated historian for being one who writes history, writes about teaching and learning and about the discipline of history, tries to strengthen the practices and institutions of the discipline (by, among other things, co-founding the National History Center), attempts to figure out how to apply historical knowledge to public affairs (through, for example, the History News Service, which Joyce Appleby and I founded in 1996), and remains fully involved in the scholarly community of historians—but without institutional employment.
So am I an academic, a public historian, or an unaffiliated historian? I have been and remain all three. I prefer to be known, therefore, simply and honorably, as a historian—no more and no less and without adjectival limitation. In fact, for the good of the discipline of history, of the many professions in which it is practiced, and of the thousands of individual historians who practice it, I wish that we would discard the descriptives by which we distinguish ourselves from each other and simply accept the fact that we are all historians serving the creation, advance, diffusion, and application of historical knowledge.
It is surely the case that each of us practices history in distinctive ways in different places and by different means. But rare is the historian now and in the past who did not don different professional clothing at different times for specific, distinct purposes. Academic historians have long counseled elected and appointed officials, curated and managed library collections, created and hosted radio and television history series, even run institutions while retaining their college and university berths. That is, academics have occupied the roles of public historian. Public historians now and in the past have taught undergraduate and graduate students and written scholarly books and scholarly articles. That is, public historians have served in academic capacities. Unaffiliated historians, too, have taught at academic institutions and brought historical knowledge to large publics while writing historical works and managing projects from their private homes and offices. That is, unaffiliated historians have taken up roles in both academic and public arenas. All these people—academic historians, public historians, and unaffiliated historians—have been working as historians.
The distinctions we make among and between historians serve principally to maintain institutional, occupational, and reputational separations that, while conventional, are no longer functional. Diminishing and eventually eliminating those distinctions – many of them implicitly invidious – remains one of the principal challenges before the discipline in our time, a discipline otherwise healthy, progressive, and adapting itself effectively to meet the exigencies of today’s world. Ridding ourselves of those distinctions is going to require major changes in the preparation of young historians by the university departments that train them up. That will be no easy task, but it must be endeavored.