The Public History Elephant in the Room

From April 27 to 29, 1979, a group of historians from around the United States converged upon Montecito, California, to discuss the state of the field and the possibility of forming an organization to help students find careers outside the academy. The first panel that spoke during the conference discussed the evolving nature of this emerging field of “public history.”

Historian Lydia Bronte was the first to speak on April 27 [All quotes are from “First National Symposium on Public History: A Report,” The Public Historian 2, no. 1 (Autumn 1979), 7-12.]:

I would say that the single most striking feature of the humanities in this country during the last five years has been the severe and painful crisis brought on by the slowing expansion in American colleges and universities, and the resulting decrease in the number of teaching positions available [for] trained humanists who would normally expect to find their life’s employment in the academic world. The dislocation wrought in individual life by this decline has been widely discussed and only occasionally publicized. It is interesting that it hasn’t been publicized more, because that in itself tells us something about the underlying attitudes created. People don’t know how to deal with it; they’re afraid in one sense even to tackle it. No one has yet found a general remedy for this problem.

Then historian Joel Tarr of Carnegie-Mellon spoke:

Just let me say a couple words in terms of how I see the future. First of all, it’s very clear that this program [at Carnegie-Mellon], and other programs such as this, will fail unless we can find jobs for our students, unless we can convince the appropriate government agencies and consulting firms, private corporations and universities that people in the area of public history and applied history are needed. The second thing, and I think this is very critical for this whole field, is the need for some kind of theory or model that will help us relate history, that is the past and materials about the past, to the present.

Finally, the historian Arnita Jones spoke:

There is a feeling that the [academic] training programs will provide the next generation of historians better training for the kinds of work that they are doing. We are beginning to see these concerns being articulated in the pages of newsletters, and on the floors of business meetings. It is not that they are new. It is not that there weren’t people five years ago or ten years ago, who didn’t think that something should be done, who didn’t think that they had needs that should be met by professional associations; it is that they think there is now more willingness to listen. I think that is something very new, very different and very important.

The historians who attended this 1979 meeting later worked to form the National Council on Public History as a way for scholars in the field to share ideas and scholarship about public history with each other.


Despite years of growth in the field of public history and the establishment of more than 100 public history programs in the United States, it appears that conference organizers at Harvard University are just now alerting themselves to the continuing humanities job crunch and the need to help students find jobs outside the academy, thirty-five years after a group of public historians organized themselves in an effort to address these problems. David Armitage of Harvard remarks that “there is an ongoing conversation within the historical profession about how it is mutating. We now need to reconsider and re-imagine training in the 21st century and look to the future of the PhD carefully.” Caroline Winterer of Stanford states that “I believe the day of the monastic PhD program, where we think solely about moving on to a four-year college or university [after graduation], is waning if not already over. We need to start looking beyond that to envision careers in museums, publishing, and the private sector.” (Do I hear an echo?) Robert Darton of Harvard rounded out the discussion by commenting that “History PhDs should be cultural mediators. There is such a need to teach people about the world and the past.”

I have the highest respect for all of these scholars and appreciate their acknowledgement of these problems. The issue isn’t with these scholars so much as it’s with the ignorance of historians who have chosen to bury their heads in the sand–those who are just now coming around to the harsh reality of humanities employment and apparently need to be told about this harsh reality by tenured professors at Harvard–even though this reality has lived with the discipline ever since the days of Plato and Aristotle. And how can so many historians discuss these issues without acknowledging public history theories, methods, and practices?

Public history and other alternative academic majors will not completely cure the humanities job crunch, but they definitely won’t succeed in helping to alleviate that crunch if historians themselves are unwilling to acknowledge public history or do anything to educate themselves about it. I can understand a non-academic asking “what is public history,” but I can’t understand how established academic historians can put themselves in a position to have no clue what public history is. I don’t think every history department needs a public history program, but I don’t think it’s too much to suggest that every history department could benefit from having an actively practicing public historian or a person trained in public history on staff to make students and faculty alike aware of its presence and aware of their career options. Harvard should keep talking, but it’s time to start putting their concerns into action. It’s time to be transparent about the realities of humanities employment and start educating students about these realities. Become a partner or patron of the National Council on Public History. Send your students to the NCPH annual conference, the American Association of Local and State History (AASLH) annual conference, the Alliance of American Museums annual conference, and/or the National Trust for Historic Preservation annual conference. Hire public historians to work with students and faculty. Take Steve Lubar’s advice and reform the history Ph.D. Be the change you wish to see.



6 thoughts on “The Public History Elephant in the Room

  1. Great stuff, Nick! I’ve experienced a lot of similar frustration in my academic career. I’ve had a lot of colleagues as me about it, but when I try to answer them they end up overwhelmed. It’s almost like we need to have a “Public History Boot Camp” for people to catch up. Keep fighting the good fight!

    1. Thanks, Andrew! It’s my hope that someday we can see the “public” in public history dropped (just like my wish to someday see the “digital” in digital humanities dropped) and a redesigned conception of the historical enterprise that teaches all students for work in all different types of situations, not just the academy.

  2. Excellent article! At the 2013 AHA meeting, I attended many sessions as part of their ‘Malleable PhD’ program. As a PhD in public history, I hoped these would be relevant to me, and indeed, there was quite a bit of helpful and open discussion about careers in publishing and government service other than NPS, which my program at MTSU doesn’t emphasize. However, many of the questions posed by presenters – how to incorporate an internship or residency in PhD curriculum, how to evaluate service oriented or community work, how to structure collaborative or co-created projects – demonstrated that no one consulted any public history resources or graduate handbooks. It was if those who volunteered to comment on the crisis were more interesting in branding it than trying to solve it. Thanks again for the engaging read.

    1. Hi Elizabeth,

      Thank you for sharing your perspective on this important issue. I’ve observed over the past couple years a tendency from some history programs (I won’t name names) to simply “brand” themselves as offering public history training without really incorporating the “public” part of that training. The skills you highlight–internships and residencies, community work, service projects, collaborative projects, even digital projects–still seem to be missing to a large extent from many history programs. I am glad that organizations like the AHA and the OAH seem to be coming around and appreciating the importance of training historians for work in and out of the academy. I just hope they realize that the need to address these problems with concrete solutions has been around a long time.

      1. I completely agree Nick. I’ve seen a lot of programs teach public history like they would any other field. You read 50-100 books, take an exam, and bam, you’re a public historian. That’s not how it works. I think in a lot of ways, that hurt public history as much as it helps it. Of course, I’ve also seen students who’ve had that type of training be really proactive about seeking out the experiential side. It’s tricky, because so often students aren’t sure what’s out there either (even less than the seemingly clueless faculty).

      2. Hi Andrew,

        Thanks again for commenting. Yes, what you’ve described cannot be considered training for public history, and it doesn’t prepare you for work as a consultant, museum practitioner, or historic preservationist. Good training in public history, in my opinion, lies in the communication skills it teaches. As Philip Scarpino tells us here at IUPUI, all historians do research and all historians communicate their findings to others; WHO they are communicating with and HOW they go about communicating the stuff of history to those audiences…that’s where the challenge of doing public history hits home for me.

Comments are closed.