Tuesday, April 03, 2018

Which flavor of history?

I sometimes find myself having to define the differences between academic historians and public/local historians. It’s not enough to just say, “Academic history is the reason most people say they don’t like history, whereas local history is made up of stories about real people in your own backyard, which is ALWAYS interesting.” Seriously though, the differences between the two approaches are worth thinking about. Shedding at little light on the subject is this article by Prof. Raymond Starr of SDSU, which I stumbled across in an old (March 1983) copy of California Historian. I’ve cherry-picked some excerpts that I found particularly enlightening:

“It is curious that professional academic historians have disdained local history for the last century, because history in America was local history in the beginning. Indeed… even after the emergence of national history as part of the nation-building of the 1830s, local history continued to be more important.
The situation began to change toward the end of the 19th century. Up until that point, history had always been written by amateurs - lawyers, ministers, teachers, retired generals... In the 1870s and 1880s, ‘professional’ history arrived. Coming into American universities from Germany, a new ‘scientific’ history began to dominate. It demanded university training in the new methods of research, analysis of evidence, documentation and writing. Hence departments of history, doctorates in history, and professors of history began to emerge in most American universities. With it came ‘professionalization’ and a professional organization, the American Historical Association, organized in 1884. …That organization and the universities came to be dominated by a very narrow, academic form of history which stressed national and international political, diplomatic, constitutional and military history, and which disdained as antiquarian and narrow, local history.
“Not only did the academic historians disdain local history as a field of study, but they also disdained the organizations and institutions of local history - the museum, the local historical society, etc. These matters remained in the hands of amateurs or of what we now call ‘public historians,’ who operated without university affiliation…
“That is what is changing today. …Professional historians in the universities have begun to work in local history. …Why have university historians discovered local history? The decline in teaching jobs and enrollments in the last decade has forced colleges to look for courses and programs which appeal to students. One of the phenomenons of the 1960s and 1970s was a great upswing of public interest in local and family history…
“…Academic historians are going to have to learn that many people in local history - writers, historical society staffs, museum and historical park staffs, archivists and librarians - are professionals in their own right. They may be different from professors, but they are not necessarily inferior. The emergence of the public history movement shows that some academic historians are capable of bridging the gap between university and public historians. Let us hope this continues and more and more academic historians are able to change their attitudes.
“At the same time, the non-academic local historians often show hostility toward university historians. Publications and meetings of archival, museum and preservation organizations ooze hostility toward the professor. These negative reactions come from many sources. One is the natural and understandable reaction to the rejection of local history and local historians by the academicians over the last century. …Archivists, museum staffs, people with historical societies have to come to recognize themselves that they are professionals making unique and absolutely essential contributions to local history.”

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