Yesterday I spent the day with a group of area history and social studies teachers. The meeting was part of a “Teachers as Scholars” seminar sponsored by the Messiah College Center for Public Humanities. The Center sponsors several of these seminars a year as a means of enriching the intellectual lives of local educators and providing them with an opportunity to receive much needed continuing education credit from the state.
The topic of the session was “Abraham Lincoln and American Nationalism.” I spent the morning lecturing on Lincoln’s commitment to the Whig party and his embrace of Henry Clay’s “American System.” The afternoon was spent working closely with primary sources–Lincoln’s 1858 “House Divided Speech” and his “First Inaugural Address.” In two weeks we will meet again to discuss Lincoln’s war-time nationalism/unionism and discuss our reading of Ronald White’s book on Lincoln’s second inaugural address: Lincoln’s Greatest Speech.
As I conduct seminars like this, and continue to do similar seminars with the Gilder-Lehrman Institute of American History (check out their new webpage), I grow more and more committed to the historian’s role as a public intellectual. For too long “public intellectuals” have been associated with those who write for small magazines and bring their minds to bear on public issues from their perches in the ivory tower. While this is certainly one way of thinking about the role of a public intellectual, it seems to me that working with teachers, museums, and other forms of public history is another rewarding way of bringing our expertise to the general public.