Historians called on to write books that impact the public

Historians in the News
tags: Fake News



Keisha N. Blain is an assistant professor of history at the University of Pittsburgh. Ibram X. Kendi is moving into a new position as a professor of history and international relations at American University.

Fraudulent news allegations circulate, the "alternative facts" of politicians have become commonplace, and funding for the arts and humanities faces the threat of decline. In the age of Trump, scholars must step out of the shadows of their libraries, their labs, and their classrooms — or risk the day when those libraries, labs, and classes will not be able to cast shadows. 

Today more than ever, scholars must produce scholarship for the public.Although the political climate promises to drain the pools of funding on which scholars rely, it does not appear to be squelching public thirst for scholarly research on the critical challenges we face as a nation: disenfranchisement, sexism, racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, sexual violence, inequality, violent policing, incarceration, poverty, war, climate change, terror, deportations, and limited access to education and health care.

It is not a coincidence that scholars took home all three of the recent major nonfiction awards: Pulitzer Prizes in both history and general nonfiction, the National Book Critics Circle Award, and the National Book Award. The University of Michigan’s Heather Ann Thompson won the Pulitzer for history for Blood in the Water: The Attica Prison Uprising of 1971 and Its Legacy (Pantheon). The Harvard sociologist Matthew Desmond received the Pulitzer for general nonfiction and the National Book Critics Circle Award for nonfiction for Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City (Crown). The Emory University African-American studies scholar Carol Anderson won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism for White Rage: The Unspoken Truth of Our Racial Divide (Bloomsbury), and one of us, Ibram X. Kendi, won the National Book Award for nonfiction for Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (Nation Books).

 In comparison, only one of these five book prizes went to an author with an academic affiliation in last year’s award cycle.

 The growing attacks on the credibility of journalists and the burgeoning skepticism of partisan politicians, judges, and talking heads seem to have provided a unique opportunity for scholars, drenched in their research, to replenish the minds of the nation. The public appears to be experiencing a vacuum of expertise. Perhaps people will now bestow more trust on the expertise of America’s notoriously and proudly independent academics.

 Scholars can defend truth, if they can only yank themselves out of their conferences, their journals, and their academic jargon. Now more than ever before, scholars must be at the forefront of public debate.

 This means more public scholarship, not more public scholars. The distinction is a crucial one. Public scholars are known by the public. Public scholarship directly impacts the public.





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