Emotion, Shared-Authority, and Public Participation in History

Should historians allow emotions to affect their research, or should they maintain a clinical distance from their subject? Cauvin argues that “historians have been trained to avoid any personal involvement in their writing and personal connection with the subject of their research.” (217) There are obviously reasons that policies like this are in place. Protecting academia from a researchers’ unfair bias or an ulterior motive is important, but is this guiding principle distancing historians from the public?

According to Rosenzweig and Thelen’s research, the public is extremely interested in history. Americans stated that “they wanted to participate in the larger past, to experience it, to reach into history by reaching outward from their own lives.” (115) Most people are in fact interested in the broader history of nations, but that interest is often rooted in the past of that individual’s family. Ignoring the humanity of events like the World Wars, the Vietnam War, or the Great Depression cuts out the part of history that most of the public is interested in—the people. That being said, emotions and nostalgia that are not based in facts are not beneficial to the public. Because of this, facts and figures serve an extremely important purpose. They should always be available to the public to back up the narrative that they are being presented with.

Cauvin goes on to discuss the impact historians have on “conveying the history of voiceless people who have suffered” in the past, especially minorities. (241) In the survey completed for in Rosenzweig and Thelen’s book, many members of minority groups shared their candid thoughts about history, the government, traditions, and family. For example, when talking with Mexican American citizens the interviewers found that “the family became a medium for navigating between personal and group identity.” (143) Cauvin reminds historians that they “should not speak in place of native populations,” and that history should “not just about native populations, but also be produced with them.” (233)

The discussion surrounding the relationship between historians and the public leads into a current hot-topic in the public history world—shared authority. Should the public have a say in how history is presented? How much of a say? Should historians trust the accounts of people who were there over their scholarly research? This is still a debated topic amongst historians and Cauvin references many scholarly works that have been written within the past decade on this topic. Cauvin concludes that “everyone can participate in public history, but not every opinion is equal.” (225)

Historians’ understanding of the past gives them a unique opportunity to participate in political activism in the present. They are often tentative to participate in political activism, because they have been trained not to impose their own biases on events, but Cauvin points out that “history can help people understand the complexities of the present.” (230) Studying the past gives historians valuable insight into the smaller social movements that made larger national movements possible. Understanding the interplay between these two forces gives historians the ability to “help people to become better citizens.” (Cauvin, 230)

Public historians should embrace the unique set of specialties that they possess. Skills in researching, a specialized knowledge of the past, and an interest in a well-informed public lends itself quite nicely to participation in activism and social justice. Interacting closely with marginalized people groups, and understanding the ripples of the past that are still being felt today by many people allows public historians to be passionate, empathetic, and well-informed political activists.

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