Conflict between Academic and Public Historians

Published August 31, 2012 by Tabby

This is more of a blog for my colleagues or new professionals who are wondering why some historians do not like or sometimes even speak to others. This probably applies to anyone’s work place. Quickly: historians are classified as either academic historians (work as professors in universities or research and write several books) or public historians (work with the public, mostly in museums, preservation, etc.)

This post originates from public history books I have had to read for my public history minor. My boyfriend is currently taking the same class and asked me if academic historians are really assholes and as full of themselves as the authors stated. As I started to get a small twitch in my eye, I started to explain why there are those perceptions. Then it hit me: I have never read a published work in which an academic historian spends an entire book, chapter, or even a mention of a dislike of public historians. (If I am wrong, PLEASE send me the title of the book).

With the highly biased dislike, almost hatred, of academic historians, in the public history book, I think that a more complete description of the friction between the two is needed. As I tried to explain the differences to my righteous boyfriend, I created this post.

I will try to be as unbiased as humanly possible. I professionally “play both sides of the field.” I started my career and have two degrees in public history and still currently work in public history as well as an academic professor as well. I don’t think one is better than the other; both are needed and contribute to the field. Since public historians are the only ones I know of that actively post against academics, this blog is to kind of explain the tensions academic historians have since public historians have published their side. I don’t wish to offend anyone or try to sway that one side is better than the other. I’m just pointing out some of the thoughts.

-Public historians have published and spent chapters or at least a couple of paragraphs stating that academic historians are arrogant, pompous, assholes. As far as I know (I fully admit I could not know) academics have not published how they dislike public historians. Being attacked in publication probably doesn’t make academics happy. I’m sure public historians have received scorn or ridicule while in college, and that isn’t right, but I don’t know of anything actively published against them.

-Public historians often insinuate that academics are unimportant and spend all their time locked in ivy towers and do not contribute to the field. They mostly ignore that academics spend their time preparing lectures, researching and writing history. If it is mentioned, public historians state academics write only long, boring, useless monographs that no one reads but the author.

-Public historians often are clueless about citations and copyright restrictions, sometimes intentionally. Not all, I’m aware. Often when one is putting together a public guide or project, they will use the original research/writing of an academic historian without giving them any credit or citation in the article or in the bibliography. Yes, if used to educate others there is a “Fair Use” clause to copyright laws but that only goes so far and it is still professional to add a citation. This is called stealing and understandably makes people a little cranky after putting blood, sweat, tears, and Taco Bell into this work.

-Without academic historians, public workers would not have new interpretations or information about different aspects of history. Public historians are busy working with the public and do not have the time (or sometimes training) to research and write as much as academic historians.

-Public historians are trained by academics. Before they earn their professional experience from internships and public history courses, they are taught the field of history by academics. A little appreciation would be nice.

-Some public historians are not professionally trained. That is phasing out as more universities are building museum studies/public history departments. The ones who are not trained, however, are constantly butchering what academic (and professional public) historians are working hard to create and correct.

-Both public and academic historians are important and the work of each contributes to the other. Academic historians research, write, and teach history while public historians take that knowledge and training and disseminate it to the general public.

Historians of both types are horrendously underpaid and underappreciated. This factionalism does not help. How can people like us and think we are important if we don’t even like each other? I understand both have offended the other, but it doesn’t help anything. Until historians are appreciated by everyone, pay is raised to at least a comparative level of people who did not work near as hard to get to their job, politicians stop butchering history to use for their purpose to their campaigns, and all high school students know who the president is, we need to stick together. Those things will never happen, but all the more important to unify, to be stronger and better at what we do.

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