Ian Tyrrell: Historians are wrong to think their public influence is in decline, says in new book and interview

Historians in the News

Wherever historians gather, the conversation often turns to a discussion of why there seems to be such a distance between professional historians and the general public. For most historians working today, the relationship seemed to hit a nadir in the late 1990s with closed museum exhibits and rejected school curricula. As Ian Tyrrell, professor of history at the University of New South Wales, reminds us in his new book, Historians in Public: The Practice of American History, 1890–1970 (University of Chicago Press, 2005), these conversations and problems are hardly new. From the perspective afforded by teaching half a world away, and supported by extensive research in the archives of the profession here in the United States, Tyrrell offers a fresh take on the past of the history profession, challenging us to see the similarities between present problems and past ruptures in the relationship, and highlighting the resources historians have used to address them.

In March, Robert Townsend, AHA assistant director for publications and research, asked Ian Tyrrell (by e-mail) about some of the issues raised in and by his book.

Q: I think many Perspectives readers would agree that they fought the culture wars and lost. Why study the prehistory of those events?

The profession certainly faced powerful pressures in the 1990s against the kinds of multicultural history that had become fashionable among academics. In this sense historians were politically marginalized. But the profession, it seems to me, sets high standards for its influence and is disappointed when politicians ignorant or deliberately contemptuous of the nuances of academic debates blunder in. These standards are rarely measured against the practice of history in other times or in other countries.

The prehistory of the 1990s debate therefore provides perspective. In my opinion, historians are too quick to assume that their public influence has been in decline in recent years whereas at some distant and better time they shaped public perceptions of history. One point was to show how exaggerated this common impression is, and to show both the strengths and the weaknesses of the forms of professional engagement that have occurred in the past. Another was to examine closely the process of historical practice, as I call it, to see the different ways in which historians shaped and were influenced by audiences. Though historians in the past have given attention to professional practice, they have generally focused either on intellectual trends in historiography, or examined the work of prominent historians. I wanted to cast a wider net, and sought to root the activity of historians in its social and institutional setting. I hoped thereby to demonstrate the variety of responses among professional historians to their social roles, and to show the diversity of historical practice.

I was also concerned about attacks on the professional practice of history, coming both from within and outside the academy. I wanted to demonstrate that professional practice was not inimical to wider public engagement, but in some circumstances and under certain traditions of history making, could be made more compatible with public representations of history. I hoped in part to give historians confidence that tendencies towards specialization and professionalism were not the key problems, but rather the way practitioners of history in the academy related to the changing nature of historical audiences. I wanted to show that historians had modified their practice before and that, learning by example, this could be done again. Indeed, they might well recognize traditions that still influence them today....

Read entire article at AHA Perspectives (May 2006)

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Randll Reese Besch - 5/13/2006

Just as general knowledge of language is becoming spare,repetative and polluted with slang of aliterate culture ,so is comprehensive knowledge of history in general much less specific to what is in the data sphere. Read sources of all types. History is too multilayered to be seen as adequately covered by any one text. Learn to learn and sift data.