Jon Stewart, Public Historian? Maybe? (Part 2)

About two weeks ago I wrote a post in which I chimed into the discussion about whether or not Jon Stewart could be considered a “public historian.” Long story short, I agreed with a poster named Erik Greenburg who commented that “a public historian should be someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian,” which meant, in my estimation, that Stewart would not meet that standard. I clarified that one doesn’t need to be academically trained to “do history,” but that they should make an attempt to understand the methods and ways in which historians “think historically.”

After my blog post, another person, Brown University professor Steven Lubar, commented with the following words:

Let’s think about a “big tent” definition of public historian. Limiting it to “someone grounded in the arguments, practices, and habits of mind of an academically trained historian” leaves out some of the best and most interesting work – and makes for a pretty boring field. It says, do history our way, the academic way, and then we’ll keep you in our club. What if we defined it to include community historians, enthusiastic amateurs, popular writers, genealogists? [I have argued that it does] We academically trained historians might learn a lot – as well as reach a larger audience. If our goal is to encourage the public to use the past to think about the present and future – I think that’s a fair definition of the purpose of public history – then we want to include all (or at least most) of those folks… It’s about ends, not means, and certainly not about technique, practice, or (above all!) being able to write in a really boring way.

So it appears as if Jon Stewart may in fact be a public historian, at least under Lubar’s definition, which is a very good one. These comments challenge my prior assumptions and it appears as if I may have been incorrect in my original assessment. I wholeheartedly agree that one goal of public history is to encourage the public to use the past to think about the present and future and have argued as much on this blog. The larger ideal Lubar is attempting to convey is one of “shared authority,” the act of historians exploring the past with non-historians, making sure to collaborate on projects in order to present as many perspectives and experiences as possible. Again, I’m all for this. Yet I am having a really tough time accepting the practical consequences of Lubar’s definition and, by extension, what it means to have “shared authority.” I suppose the rub is that while we’re both advocating for an emphasis towards the end results of public history, I think a more responsible understanding of the means, especially the technique and practice behind it, is required in order for us to make the end results more meaningful.

If I were creating an exhibit at a museum about American Indians/Native Americans, I would do my very best to create stakeholders in my project by having a wide range of voices, perspectives, and experiences on display, and I would be exploring the past with these people, sharing authority and creating a dialogue from which we could hopefully bring about a better understanding of past actions, events, and leaders in history. Yet at the end of the day, the finished product that will be put on display for the public has my name on it. More than likely I will have to make vital cuts and changes to the project in order to make it flow better considering the financial and time constraints that I’ll have to deal with, and I will have to possibly cut out certain voices, perspectives, and experiences that I don’t think would work within this interpretive framework. I will have to exercise authority. I will share as much authority as possible, but I will most likely have various moments during the creation of my project in which I will have to exercise an authoritative decision, because I am the one who received the academic training and skills to see the project through to its fruition, and in most cases these authoritative decisions are made by academically trained professionals when creating exhibits. There is no such thing as a pure experience in “shared authority,” at least not to my knowledge.

Please don’t misunderstand me. I believe in sharing authority with all people when making history, regardless of academic training. However, my “big tent” is different from Professor Lubar’s. My “big tent” is welcoming to anyone who wants to come through and engage in dialogue with professional or non-professional historians. We share information with each other, and in many cases the non-academics will change the structural framework of my “big tent” and the ways in which professional and non-professional historians look at the past. The tent will always be moving (think of a nomadic Indian tribe, for example), but when we find a temporary spot in which to ground our tent, we will always tie it to ground with the basic idea of trying to “think historically” and all that entails. That idea is our base. Lubar’s “big tent,” it seems to me, isn’t a tent at all. It’s an open field with no distinctions, a sort of relativist framework in which everyone’s views and perspectives are carried with equal weight and no one has authority. We don’t share authority because no one has any authority in the first place.

If Lubar is correct, which he very well might be, then I want to know why I’m going to graduate school in the first place and why people like him are still convincing people like me to go to school and financially support people in his “club” with tenured faculty positions at prestigious universities that produce “boring writers.” I mean this with all due respect to Dr. Lubar and many of his colleagues. I am hoping to perhaps be just like them someday.

I think it’s one thing to have a nice, idealistic vision about the way history should be. My last post was highly idealistic. I am an idealistic person, for crying out loud! But we have to work hard to understand the circumstances in which we practice the craft of history, and that involves thinking rationally about the means we can use in order to reach the end goal of creating a richer understanding of the past. When I give my idealistic views on how things should be, I try to do so while acknowledging the impracticality of some of those ideas. If I can be a public historian just by “confronting politicians with inconvenient truths about the past,” then I may as well stop going to school and go look for politicians to haggle, I suppose.

A very smart classmate of mine suggested that we should ask Jon Stewart whether he thinks he’s a public historian. That’s a lot better than my poor attempt to answer for him. However, I think the larger lesson I’ve learned from this experience is that I still have problems defining what it means to have “shared authority” in history and what that could mean for my professional career. I’m actually scared to a certain degree; I went to graduate school partly so that I could take a more authoritative role in creating a history that I think makes the world better a place for us living today and for those who will inherit our world. I’m still learning how exactly to go about doing that in a way that is responsible, honest, and fair to people of all shapes, sizes, colors, genders, and academic credentials. I hope more intelligent people like Steven Lubar can challenge me to work harder towards that goal.


Jon Stewart, Public Historian? I Don’t Think So.

Jon Stewart

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.