In honor of our USIH 3.0 conference program release, I offer this related essay by Thomas Bender on the role of historians as public intellectuals. Titled “Historians in Public,” Bender uses the article to think about the audiences of historians in relation to both historians’ particular kinds of expertise and their means of communication. I found this reminder from Bender, appearing early in the essay, to be most worthy (underlining mine):
As Émile Zola declaimed, the intellectual is by definition a public actor; moreover, all professions, including the academic ones, claim a public aspect by definition to justify their privileges of incorporation and self-regulation.
If we follow Zola’s prompt, the distinction between an ‘intellectual’ and a ‘scholar’ is the starting point for thinking about audiences for intellectuals (their ‘publics’) in the twentieth century. Words to ponder as we begin thinking through our manuscripts for the fall program.
And here’s another passage—with no small implications for USIH as a subfield and its conference (this fall and beyond, underlining mine):
At the time the AHA was founded the overriding cultural and political project was restoring the union. The price of reconciliation was accepting a regime of white terror imposed on black Americans in the former Confederate states. One of the great accomplishments of recent scholarship has been to make this clear. In fact the scholarship of the past two or three decades has focused on a variety of exclusions—many people who were previously excluded from the American narrative—and by implication—the American public. Now race, gender, ethnicity, and sexual orientation have been written into history and public life. This was obviously a good thing, and it had a large impact in schools, the media, and the law, among other dimensions of our lives.
Yet something was lost—the nation and the state. The recovered persons were incorporated into society, not into a narrative of the nation or the state, into identity politics, not citizenship. In the 1980s and 1990s instead of talk about and inquiry into “the public,” there was talk of publics, alternative publics, counter-publics, a black public sphere, and more. The list got pretty long, but the public dissolved in this otherwise invaluable historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. There was no United States. History was all parts, no whole.
Wow. But Bender’s essay contains much more. Indeed, we could mine this piece for days. I won’t reproduce the rest here, but would be happy to converse about his other points—large and small—in the comments below. – TL