Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Blog CXLVI (146): History vs. Applied History vs. Public History

I wrote an article for the AHA newsletter Perspectives on History that is out in the current issue.  I basically use it to push some reform recommendations on the AHA that will help the organization improve job opportunities for those who are looking for work.  A good deal of editing was involved to get the article down to the required word limit.  I dropped a couple of my recommendations and also eliminated a discussion of history vs. public history vs. applied history.  The purpose of this posting is to expand on that last point since very little of it got into the final version. 

The term “applied history” is not common.  I see “applied history” as disciplines that use existing historical knowledge to address practical problems in other fields and professions.  I wish I could claim it as my own, but the first time I heard it was in 2001 at a teaching workshop when Andrew J. Bacevich, a historian teaching in an international relations department, used it to describe the courses he taught.  It is a pretty good description of the courses that I teach at the Naval War College.  These classes are about two-thirds history (military and diplomatic) and about one-third political science (international relations and political theory).  We are using the history to develop analytical skills among our students so they can become strategists for the armed services (our students are military officers or civil servants working for various agencies of the U.S. government—State Department, Federal Bureau of Investigations, etc.).  Some of the questions we explore are historical in nature, while others are designed to test theories or answer ahistorical issues.

Applied history is also a good term for a number of other professions that study the past on a regular basis.  These career paths include historians teaching in other disciplines, archaeologists, social scientists, librarians, archivists, and editors.

History—and by that I mean the type of study that one regularly encounters in a department of history at a college or university—develops information to explain and understand phenomena, events, and trends of the past.  We can call this “history,” or  “academic history,” or “basic history” or “pure history.”

The real question then is how is “applied history” different from "public history”?  In some very real ways it is the same thing.  As I understand it, the term “public history” replaced “applied history” as a basic descriptor.  Needless to say, this term is a bit confusing.  Consider this comment from James McPherson, the Pulitzer Prize winning historian who served as president of the American Historical Association in 2003: “I cannot remember exactly when I first encountered the term 'public history.' It does not seem all that many years ago. And I am embarrassed to confess that I initially thought public history was the story of public events—the kind of history that most of us taught and wrote before the private lives of ordinary people in home and family became an important field of historical inquiry.”

While the term “public history” is one that many historians might recognized instead of “applied history,” it is incredibly vague.  It is often used to describe some very different activities that have little to do with the public sphere. The job duties of "applied historians" like myself and Bacevich are not that much different than what an academic historian at some place like...oh, say...the University of Kansas or Kansas State University might be doing.  In fact, Bacevich is an academic; he is a tenured faculty member at Boston University.  My job is also pretty much the same as some one at Kansas or Kansas State, I grade papers, run seminars, read books, and do service work for the college and my department.  There are many other people that use history to explore the issues relevant to their academic fields and they are often housed in different departments at a college or university.  They include people studying: economics, music, math, art, kinesiology, and business.  Most archaeologists, social scientists, librarians, editors of historical paper collections, and archivists are also academics.

Public historians, I would argue, are primarily those that are interfacing with a large audience comprised of the general, non-academic public. This description is not to say that doing intellectually irrelevant work or having little interchange with academics.  The big difference for them is that history is very often a consumable product for their audiences that might exist for educational purposes, but could also exist for entertainment or for issues specific to certain professional disciplines.  Teaching is usually not in their mission set.  People in these fields include historical preservationists, journalists, documentary filmmakers, professional writers, national historical park staffs, museum curators, staff historians of government agencies, and individuals working for research firms.  Public historians might have a Ph.D. in history, but many times it is something they earn along the way to bolster their other professional experiences and credentials. (In this sense, the Ph.D. is not a two way street; while it helps someone in these fields, the degree does not in and of itself make one qualified to do this type of work).

Much of this discussion got cut from the Perspectives article, which was appropriate.   It took the article off target.  I also wrote at great length about public history in Blog XLVI (46): The History Ph.D. as Public Historian.  It is a good essay and has been one of the more popular postings on this blog.  This discussion, though, explains a major thrust of that previous article.  There is a big, huge divide between historians working in academic history departments and those scholars working in applied or public history.  In Blog XLVI, I quoted Alexandra Lord, a historian for the U.S. Public Health Service, on this matter: “While researching about different careers and the many ways in which one can practice history, I was struck by the academic community’s failure to regard those outside academia as historians engaged in scholarly and valuable work.  Having embraced these foolish prejudices as a graduate student and then a professor, I have come now, as a nonacademic historian, to wonder why these prejudices are so pervasive. What does it say about our profession when we believe that historians who work with senators, reporters, policy analysts, and the general public should not be the among the best of our profession? What does it say when we dismiss the historian who uses his or her degree in a unique and innovative fashion that promotes the study of history?”

So, why is this relevant to an article about reforming the AHA in the hopes of improving the job market?

Glad you asked.  A basic problem the AHA faces—even if it don't know it—is it isolated.  Most AHA leaders have gone from undergrad status to graduate school to faculty positions, and have very little knowledge of other professional opportunities for historians.  The AHA needs to make efforts to reach out to other fields.  One way as I discuss in the article is to open up the AHA presidency to people in these other fields.  That recommendation is in the article. Another way—which got cut—is to create an "applied history" division within the AHA to reach out to scholars working in other disciplines and/or public history.  My hope is that the organization can sponsor conferences and sessions at the annual meeting, arrange for the publication of articles in Perspectives, and provide services like including "applied/public historians" in the annual directory of history departments in a noticeable way (maybe make it a directory of institutions rather than departments) or make advertising jobs in perspective cheap and affordable for other organizations.  The ultimate goal of all this broadening activity is to alert AHA members—be they mentors to young scholars or the job seekers themeselves—to the employment opportunities that exist beyond the history department. 


  1. A link to the National Council on Public History (ncph.org), particularly its narration of its own history and the the organization's History@Work blog would be useful to this discussion of nomenclature and of educational or job opportunity.