How historians should engage with ‘the public’

I follow a lot of historians on Twitter because I am a big consumer of history books for my leisure reading. Here recently, Max Boot has stirred the pot by writing one shallow essay after another chiding historians for failing to be more engaged. I am not going to link because he’s gotten more clicks out of this than it deserves, and all you really need to do to get the flavor is repeat every “ivory tower academic” complaint you’ve ever heard in your life on a loop, and you get the idea.

From my perspective, historians seem to be to be genuinely, deeply engaged in discussing both their finding and their craft on television, podcasts, social media, and documentary film-making. Historians are writing books, and they are writing a level of prose quality and accessibility that should be the envy of many other disciplines. What else historians are meant to do here leaves me at a loss.

I suppose historians could break into people’s homes, tie people to chairs using those scary plastic cuffs all the serial killers on television have, and then subject their victims to lectures on US and world history, followed by a quiz, but I think that’s going a mite far.

Americans appear to have valorized willful ignorance of men like Donald Trump (he’s such a big strong man, he makes reality, my big-daddy hero sent to own the libs). I’m not sure what one discipline does to fight that. We should all be confronting it and embodying the virtues of knowledge. (And yeah, I know there’s classism embedded in that statement, but I believe education is a human right. IOW, I didn’t put the classism there; it was there when I showed up, and I seek to remake it.)

One last point here: not everybody should be pressured to be a media darling or a public intellectual. That’s just not a comfortable or desired role for many scholars, and we should stop shaming them for not being engaged in activities that don’t fit their own goals and personalities. This is ESPECIALLY true given that we’ve discovered that some of our relentlessly fame-seeking public intellectuals are horrid people (Dersh), while others appear to be the living embodiment of their own ideas (Cornell West, bell hooks).

Let those who want to be involved in the hurly-burly of public life do their thing and for God’s sakes let the quiet scholars who wish to spend their time with their students and research do their job the way that seems right to them. Universities already provide outsized rewards for public intellectuals no matter how shallow they are and no matter how simplistic and unchallenging their prescriptions are (and, in fact, the more pablum-y, the better, as there will be no real challenge to any status quo).

There’s plenty of room for everybody’s style in learning and writing. Historians are doing great work, and maybe the rest of us should shut up and read them rather than expecting them to teach us complicated things in sound bytes.