Back to the Future? Public History and the New Academic Citizen

Zurück in die Zukunft? Public History und der neue ‘Academic Citizen’

Public history is a tricky thing to define, its very elusiveness serving as a reason for historians to regard it with suspicion. The act of definition is problematic, however, for more important reasons than semantics. It sets ‘public history’ apart from ‘history’ in way that has never applied to other specialisations, such as social, economic, Black or women’s history.  One important reason for this is that definitions of public history tend to rely on making distinctions between what happens – and belongs – inside these places called universities and the world beyond their walls. Creatively adapting the concept of ‘academic citizenship’ might offer us a way to think past this fundamental issue.



The possibilities of citizenship

‘Citizenship’ is a useful term as it’s capacious.  It implies belonging, and suggests an array of rights and responsibilities, some of which may be pro…

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  1. Alix Green is correct in pointing out there are risks that accompany history departments’ perception that public history can be “useful” to them in fulfilling what may be to some academics an onerous commitment to public service. Her assertion that we might do well to look back to our professional past to find some alternative models of public or applied history is also helpful. Well into the 20th century historians in the large land grant universities of American Midwest cooperated productively with those in their states’ historical societies in the founding of what is now the largest professional association for those interested in US history: the Organization of American Historians. Later on another generation of historians found their research shaped by their part their participation in both military and civilian historical projects relating to the Second World War. Unfortunately the great expansion of higher education in the post war period largely swamped these efforts and undermined the relationships between historians inside and out of colleges and universities.

    Still there is encouraging evidence that some leaders in the academy are getting the message that there is more to be gained from public history than just checking the public service box. Public historians who read current American Historical Association president Vicki Ruiz’ recent article in the February issue of Perspectives in History on “The Power of Public History” will be cheered by her assertion that “public history has touched my scholarship and teaching at every turn.” A veteran of more that seventy public history projects she writes persuasively, not only about the real problems and pitfalls of doing this work, but also the transformative effect it has had on her and others’ scholarship. Let’s hope the next generation of historians is listening.

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