History for the Public, or, Does the Center Hold?

Randall Stephens

NYU professor of history Thomas Bender's engaging on-line essay, "Historians in Public," at the SSRC has been making the rounds. He notes the worries of historians and social scientists, who think "that academic intellect has turned inward, cutting itself off from a role in public life."

Says Bender: "In the 1980s and 1990s instead of talk about and inquiry into “the public,” there was talk of publics, alternative publics, counter-publics, a black public sphere, and more. The list got pretty long, but the public dissolved in this otherwise invaluable historiography of the 1980s and 1990s. There was no United States. History was all parts, no whole. Bookstores organized American history by these identity-driven markets, often with no place for general histories. The challenge not taken up was how to narrate a whole made up of diverse and unequal parts. . . . Historians must bring the state back into relation to society, and along the way they need to rediscover the public. It will be, however, very different from [w]hat the early AHA . . . had in mind. And historians must make themselves a part of that public."

Unlike earlier calls for a unified history, this doesn't sound like a canon shot on the battlefield of the culture war. Though Bender's recommendations do bare some resemblance to those the late Arthur Schlesinger made in his 1991/1998 The Disuniting of America: Reflections on a Multicultural Society. Schlesinger's polemic makes what Bender writes look almost tame, though. And, of course, Schlesinger was writing about the nature and function of American identity.

Here's Schlesinger: "[P]ressed too far, the cult of ethnicity has had bad consequences too. The new ethnic gospel rejects the unifying vision of individuals from all nations melted into a new race. Its underlying philosophy is that America is not a nation of individuals at all but a nation of groups, that ethnicity is the defining experience for Americans, that ethnic ties are permanent and indelible, and that division into ethnic communities establishes the basic structure of American society and the basic meaning of American history." (Disuniting of America, 20-21.)