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Public History Needs to Grow Beyond the Academy

June 6, 2014 by Holly Thomas

King Kong


I came across this post from the National Council on Public History today, which is in turn from the New York History Blog: “What’s unfortunate, of course, is that different groups of historians have long shown a tendency to become preoccupied with their own issues and their own organizations. University scholars get together to share research and debate lofty ideas, for example, museum professionals talk among themselves about artifacts and exhibitions, teachers create and exchange lesson plans, and preservationists discuss compliance with federal regulations. In this sense, New York’s historians function in a large but disconnected community—not unlike those found in other states or even at the national level.”


Face it. For as long as archivists tend only to their archives, for as long as curators preoccupy themselves with their collections, for as long as scholars write only for their peers, and for as long as local historians fail to address the larger context in which their history unfolds, the history community will never realize its untapped potential for making a real difference in people’s lives.”

Well, no kidding. As any history M.A. can assure you, the market is against the non-Ph.d, no matter her real-world experience in most cases. (Exceptions are in historic preservation and archiving, and sometimes, museum work, but specific advanced degrees exist for all of those subject, and the historian-as-generalist gets largely left out.) It’s a scam, one that I have hesitated to write about publicly, but one that I believe is anywhere a public history M.A. is offered. Not that these aren’t good in an of themselves. My life has been greatly enriched by my own program at American University in Washington, D.C. The question is do the promises held out to degree candidates about professional work stack up? The answer is largely no. Having an M.A. in history, and only 12 percent of Americans have an M.A. in any subject, can be held against you as if you couldn’t be asked to complete a Ph.d, never mind that there a few tenure-track positions open anywhere in universities, or the time and expense of acquiring one. And never mind the fact that many, many Ph.d’s lack real-world job experience, and so, for example, cannot write well or on deadline, have never managed people, and may not be comfortable interviewing people for oral history projects, to name a few examples.

For someone as passionate about history as I am, who never wanted to teach but instead has sought to reach the public, it’s a pretty frustrating reality. Public history is still based on an academic model and lives largely behind the desks of academics.






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