March 4th, 2012
William Cronon, the current president of the AHA, knows a lot about how to make history accessible and interesting to non-historians. See his website for some of the ways he moves beyond the narrow sphere of academic history. So when he worries about how the profession defines itself, we should probably take his concerns seriously. In a recent essay for Perspectives, “Professional Boredom,” he raises a number of good points that warrant further consideration. In particular, he points out that despite the general public’s healthy appetite for history, professional historians rarely produce work intended for public consumption. He urges historians, by which he means professional, academic historians, to make our histories less boring, to resist the temptation to define our field too narrowly:
Given the immense public appetite for history, and the essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present, the risks associated with too narrow and academic a definition of “professional history” could not be more clear.
This is why, I would argue, we should keep a close watch on boredom if we want to make sure history continues to reach beyond our professional circles to a public that includes not just an educated citizenry, but intellectuals in other disciplines and historians in other fields. If professional history is sometimes boring, let’s ask what it is about our professionalism that makes it so.
How do we avoid professional boredom? By making sure we don’t define “professional” too narrowly. By not talking only with each other. By welcoming into our community anyone and everyone who shares our passion for the past and who cherishes good history. By remembering that no matter what else we do, we are all teachers whose foremost responsibility is to share what we know in ways people can understand—and, more basic still, in ways that people will find interesting, even intriguing. By communicating as clearly and engagingly as we can. By telling good stories.
This is why I find it so rewarding to talk to people beyond the academy, why I enjoy participating in the Philadelphia Science Festival, and why I often find myself “Taking History of Science to ‘Them’”