Update, 10/21/14: People change over time, and their perspective of the world is subject to constant revision. I am wrong quite often, and my perspective has changed since writing this essay. I would not have been so dismissive of the idea of Jon Stewart being considered a public historian had I wrote this essay today. I think public history should be broadly defined and warmly inviting of anyone who wants to be considered as such. – NS
Over at History@Work we learn that the American Historical Association, one of the preeminent history organizations in the United States, recently held their national conference in New Orleans, Louisiana. During the myriad discussions taking place about history, digital history, and many other topics, a question was raised as to whether or not Jon Stewart could be considered a public historian. Apparently the panel discussants who posed this question agreed that yes, Mr. Stewart could be considered as such because he does a good job of “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past.”
First off, I am sympathetic to the idea that history can be “done” by just about anyone. If a non-historian, i.e. a person with no professional training in history, writes a book about history, they are “doing history” in my estimation. So yes, even Bill O’Reilly is “doing history” when he writes books about Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy. Furthermore, someone with no professional training in public history can be “doing public history.” While working at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic site several volunteers would sometimes conduct tours of the historic home White Haven. These people more often than not didn’t have any formal training in history – they merely enjoyed local history and wanted to do their part to preserve its legacy.
Yet I have to refrain from calling Stewart a public historian. Firstly, while he does in fact confront politicians in a fascinating and entertaining manner, the ways in which he conducts his confrontations are varied. Sometimes he uses historical examples, but just as often he uses jokes, punditry, or a different story in current events to make his point rather than anything concerning the past.
Erik Greenberg made the following comments about the Stewart-as-public-historian question:
No, he is not. He might be described more accurately as a public intellectual (although intellectuals are, or should be, by definition publicly minded so the term is redundant). But a public historian should be someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian. So if Stewart, or Spielberg, etc. have studied history carefully, understood the intellectual and evidentiary rigor demanded of an historian, and then continue with their work as filmmakers, pundits, etc., THEN they are public historians.
I agree that one doesn’t need the academic training to be a historian, but he or she must learn and understand, at least to an extent, the mindset and thought process of a historian. Try to think “historically.” With people like Bill O’Reilly and other non-historians who have been able to publish books about history, I would argue that most of them have made a conscious effort to “think historically,” although they may or may not have lived up to the standards of academically trained historians. And the book sales show that there are plenty of people who think O’Reilly is doing a fine job of “doing history” anyway. Likewise, most of the volunteers at ULSG–while not receiving formal, academic training–have undergone some sort of interpretive training with the salaried staff at some point in time. They have also made an effort to think “historically.”
Jon Stewart is awesome, but calling him a public historian is a bit of a stretch in my book. If he is, then any sort of journalist or media figure that may have used historical example to question a politician–Chris Matthews, Savannah Guthrie, Tim Russert, David Gregory, Sean Hannity–should be considered as such too.