Jim Grossman, the executive director of the American Historical Association, challenges historians to be actively engaged in public life. After attending a ceremony in the National Archives in which 25 people became new United States citizens, Grossman wonders why more historians are not involved in these types of events. Moreover, he wonders whether historians are even aware of the fact that one of the most popular “history publications” in the United States is the U.S. citizenship test.
First, I think back to my column last month, which lamented what happens when a state adopts a textbook not written by a historian and without any historians participating in the review process. The AHA needs to encourage historians to take part in these sorts of activities, and needs to exert pressure on relevant agencies to consult historians when historical expertise is necessary to a decision. This is part of my larger sense that public culture would benefit from the voices of historians, from an understanding that historical knowledge relates to a set of standards established by a discipline.
The other side of this coin involves historians listening more closely to public discourse. And on the question of citizenship, I’m guessing that humanists in general have been too inclined to let appealing theoretical arguments overshadow the voices of the men and women whose lives we study. In this age of global culture and transnational historical analysis, our scholarship has perhaps been too quick to dismiss the meaning of citizenship to the millions of Americans who over the years have valued not only its material benefits, but its meaning.
Second, I am reminded as to the significance of a particular historical publication, one that we do not think much about. It is actually a set of web-based materials, also available in print form, gathered under the title Study Materials for the Civics Test, created by the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (for details, follow the links at www.uscis.gov/citizenshiptest). These are the materials that prospective citizens use to prepare for the required test, whose 100 civics questions include a significant history component. The questions are often straightforward and not quite what most scholars would ask: “Who wrote the Declaration of Independence?”; “Who was the President during World War I?” But many are interpretive: “Why did the colonists fight the British?”; Name one problem that led to the Civil War.”
Why does this matter? It’s the numbers. As of September 2010, approximately one-half million people had been naturalized as American citizens in this calendar year. It is not unreasonable to guess that most of these individuals prepared for the test by reading the materials provided by USCIS. Even those of us who have written textbooks, popular biographies, or reference books that look good on a coffee table, have not seen these kinds of numbers. Here is a set of historical publications that reaches 500,000 people in a single year. And few of us have ever even heard of it.
I couldn’t agree more. We need more historians who are willing to climb down out of the ivory tower and bring their expertise and knowledge to real places. For most academic historians, reaching a public audience means writing an essay for the New Yorker or the New Republic. While this is well and good, I wonder just how many ordinary folks–like the new immigrants Grossman talks about or the people who happened to be there watching the ceremony in the National Archives–actually read these magazines. I am guessing none of them do.
When was the last time you saw an award-winning American historian giving a talk to a local civics organization or church group or public library? You seldom see this kind of thing because local civics organizations, church groups, and public libraries cannot afford to cover a $5000 to $10,000 speaking fee. It never ceases to amaze me how liberal academics so quickly become good capitalists.
It is time for academic historians to be more democratic. If we really believe that our knowledge and understanding of the past can help society, then we need to drastically cut our speaking fees, rethink the kinds of audiences to which we are willing to speak, and think of our vocations, in part, as service to our communities. (And I mean real flesh and blood communities–not the “historical community” or something vague like that).