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Joseph Kaminski

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October 18, 2019

Professionalizing History 6: The Public History of Our Community

In the last installment of Professionalizing History, we talked about the new age question of whether or not it’s important to apologize for mistakes we’ve made in the past. I highly recommend reading this series in order by publish date in order to fully understand what it means to professionalize history.

This time around, I’d like to lay out the sphere of history that tends to be ignored by most students that enter the realm of historical studies. When you talk to anyone about jobs in the world professional history, they tend to think of the old-fashioned professor with a tweed coat who will drone on and on about battlefields from a podium. They think of the world of academia – teachers and professors alike who “preach” the past to anyone who shares that interest with them. Very rarely do people first think of the other world of historical jobs: public history.

I’ve discussed Auguste Compte’s pillars of society several times on this site. I recommend reading the chapter on society in my 2015-2016 e-book Endless Flow of Society (which is published on this site) for a more in-depth analysis of the sociological theory. Regardless, it is important to realize that FAMILY, COMMUNITY, RELIGION, and EDUCATION – the four pillars – are all very important when it comes to understanding a society (past or present) and how said society worked/works. For today’s edition of Professionalizing History, I’d like to focus on the COMMUNITY aspect of society.

COMMUNITY is the overall concept of civilians coming together, whether it be to protect each other or contribute to society together. To an extent, we could categorize COMMUNITY as a primitive form of nationalism. Every society that ever “succeeded” in our eyes throughout history needed a viable, interactive, and interchangeable COMMUNITY to respect, serve, and prop up the government at hand. A united group of people is always going to succeed more than a group of people that are at ends meet with each other. We could talk for hours about the evolution of society through the strengthening of COMMUNITY, but for this specific post I believe it’s more important to talk about how people in a society can strengthen their sense of COMMUNITY.

The easiest way? Through history. Americans have found themselves united around tragedies and victories.

Think back to the most recent “tragedy” in American History – 9/11. Americans found themselves united through fear, propaganda, and an overall sense of patriotism. Before that, you find yourself staring at Pearl Harbor back in 1941 – another attack on American soil that, for the most part, created a social consensus that led to American involvement on the global stage. Before that, you’d probably see the sinking of the RMS Lusitania, which contained and led to the death of 128 American citizens after it was torpedoed by a German submarine in 1915. Even before that, you’ll run into the infamous USS Maine incident – where an American ship mysteriously blew up in the Havana Harbor in 1898. As you can basically witness, Americans have united as a social consensus through tragedies in their history.

Now let’s think back to the most recent “victory” in American History – perhaps the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 or the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. Americans found themselves smiling at their television screens as the Soviet Union began the eventual demise that would “end” the Cold War. Before that, we find ourselves smiling at the Hiroshima and Nagasaki genocides and the eventual collapse of the remaining Axis Powers at the end of the Second World War. Prior to that, we see the end of the First World War and the rise of the Roaring Twenties – a great decade for American economic prosperity that eventually led to a bad decade for American economic prosperity. Prior to that, perhaps we find ourselves united against the Spanish Empire in the Spanish-American War, which brought America to the world stage. Much further back, Americans found themselves – albeit confused and scattered in ideological thought – united for a sense of independence after the Revolution.

History unites Americans! And it isn’t oftentimes the elitist professors in American academia that unite Americans through the tragedies and victories throughout our very own history. The idea of “historian” that Americans think of – the man with a doctorate who speaks at a podium while wearing a jacket covered in dust – isn’t what the majority of Americans necessarily interact with when they wish to study history. That opens us up into the world of pubic history – the realm that helps prop up any COMMUNITY in social terms.

And where to people oftentimes learn about these events? Through museums, newspapers, internet archives, and stories/memorabilia passed down within their own family heritage.

Most students going into history don’t understand the differences. Maybe they see more job security in the field of academia, or maybe they hold their educational knowledge to the concept of TEACHING rather than history and COMMUNITY. But any good professionalized historian must be aware of this public history – the subject that creates the setups for Americans (and let’s be real, other countries around the world) to appreciate, and unite behind, history as a whole.

This is not a praising article for nationalism. As we see, nationalism is incredibly dangerous when placed into the hands of proto-fascist ideologues or an uneducated “Democracy”. This is an article praising just one of the many things that public historians have to deal with, despite being lost in a shadow of academia.

With that, here are just some examples of what public historians are involved in:

  • Museums
  • Historical societies and organizations
  • Federal government positions, such as the National Park Service
  • Government positions on a local or state level
  • Archiving and research
  • Journal editing and book publishing
  • Libraries

Therefore, when it comes to professionalizing your path in history – it is important to know that the world is far more open to you than the teaching career that the Academic institutions have pushed for so long. History is far more than upper-level teaching professions and lecturing.

In the next addition of Professionalizing History, I’ll be talking about Academic History, the counterpart to Public History that tends to overshadow the profession for most students and non-students alike. But, for right now, I leave you with a link of reference if you’re interested in getting a profession in the sphere of public history.

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, exhibit on Elephants.

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