Historians need to use their power now

Story highlights

  • Karen L. Cox: Recent events have proven that a liberal arts degree isn't "useless"
  • Reporters can rely on historians for undisputed facts during a time when "fake news" is regularly accused, she writes

Karen L. Cox is professor of history at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte and the founding director of the graduate public history program. She is the author of multiple books about Southern history and culture, most recently "Goat Castle: A True Story of Murder, Race, and the Gothic South." The views expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)Since the unrest in Charlottesville, Virginia, historians of the Civil War and the American South have been busy public intellectuals. Like me, some wrote about removing or offered the historical context for the numerous Confederate monuments that exist in the region. Others wrote about Confederate memorialization more generally, in an effort to explain why these tangible reminders of white supremacy exist.

The public, at home and abroad, is hungry for both context and conversation after Charlottesville and what the events there say about America. As of this writing, the op-eds I wrote for The New York Times and the Washington Post have received thousands of comments.
Karen Cox
To date, I have spoken with reporters from Japan, Canada, Israel, Denmark and England. My op-eds were reprinted in Ireland and Germany. The global import of these questions is staggering.
    Most critically, and like other historians, I have also been inundated with emails from everyday citizens around the country. I expected, and received, several emails condemning me for having suggested removal, though not destruction, of the monuments that are causing such divisiveness.
    What I did not expect were the numerous emails that neither lauded nor castigated me for my opinions on the issue of Confederate monuments. These Americans were writing to ask questions about history, about parallels between monuments in the South and those in other countries. They asked me to direct them to reading material that might help them not only make sense of these memorials, but also broaden their understanding of our country's complicated past.
    One physician in New York has written me three very thoughtful emails. He, like others, wants to be able to discuss the historical underpinnings of monuments and their meaning for future generations. A military officer in an interracial marriage wrote me almost desperate to better understand how race shaped the Civil War and its aftermath.
    The truth is I couldn't possibly answer every email, but these letters showed me how many Americans are starving for historical perspective. Why they know so little history is for another columnist to address, but I was buoyed that so many wrote me clamoring to understand.
    They want to learn about our past, warts and all. They want historical context for what happened in Charlottesville and other events happening in our nation and across the globe. In a word, they are hungry. And they are hungry for reliable history.
    This is great news for the discipline of history, for history teachers, for history professors, and for public historians who interpret the past for visitors at museums, historic sites and other such venues. But let's not celebrate yet. We have work to do.
    Historians need to take their role as public intellectuals seriously. True, op-eds often require a timely response to events that are unfolding. Yet, some events, like historical anniversaries, can be anticipated. We need to pay attention to contemporary conversations that have historical parallels or require a global context.
    Today, humanities scholars are roundly criticized for being irrelevant. Degrees in history and English, among others, are described as "useless." But this is simply not true as recent events have shown. That being said, scholars who have yet to write for broader audiences should take the initiative (and be encouraged by their institutions) to do so, whether that's through editorials, a blog, popular magazines, or books that not only offer lessons, but are written to be accessible.
    Make your work available via social media as well. Historians on Twitter, also known as "Twitterstorians," share and engage with the public and are on many journalists' radar. One of the most important developments in recent years has been hashtags for various syllabi. The #Charlestonsyllabus was one of the first. It emerged on Twitter as a response to the killing of nine parishioners in Charleston's Emanuel AME Church. The effort amassed a reading list of scholarship and public writing about our country's racial history that is now a book. It is also highly regarded for its comprehensiveness.
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    As historians, we must also engage in community discussions, and many of us do. But more of us can and should, whether that's via a panel discussion or speaking to local citizens' groups.
    Finally, historians and journalists must work together. During an era when the media is regularly accused of "fake news," historians can offer reporters expertise and undisputed facts.
    Journalists, on the other hand, have to stop going back to the same well for experts. Whoever said it last may not say it best. Some of the best historians working today are women and people of color. Seek them out and flesh out your reporting with different perspectives. What you write today will be important to the history of tomorrow.
    Americans desire to know their history. Let's give them the best.