- Public History as a Thesaurus?
While reading Jacqueline Nießer and Juliane Tomann's informative and thought-provoking essay "Public and Applied History in Germany: Just Another Brick in the Wall of the Academic Ivory Tower?," I could not avoid feeling a strong sense of familiarity with their main remarks on the recent development of what they call public and applied history in their country. In a continent and a hemisphere somewhat distant, Brazilian public history has been confronted with quite similar challenges concerning the collision between established, native practices and the prevalent US public history model, the bonds between public history and history education, and the conceptual and terminological challenges to an ever-growing field. These are among the issues that can be viewed much more clearly in a comparative perspective, such as the one offered by this timely forum.
I find it interesting that the article's first topic is the teaching of history, or history education in a broader sense—as the very term Geschichtsdidaktik conveys—since the connection between it and public history is highly revealing of the key features of the latter. The authors draw this connection in arguing that history didactics was the subdiscipline in Germany that first caught, and created conceptual frameworks for, the growing public interest in the past. In Brazil, education retains the same agility: as I have myself argued,1 it is—along with oral history and digital history—one of the areas that has fostered the practical and conceptual development of public history in a more emphatic and resonant way. All of these practices imply a direct contact (and, in the first two cases, face-to-face-contact) with the people we vaguely call "publics."
In the Brazilian case, however, such a relationship is not primarily theoretical. Concepts bequeathed by Geschichtsdidaktik have been quite inspiring, encouraging analysis of the different media and places through which historical knowledge—or, [End Page 46] if you prefer, the "culture of history"—circulates, boosting investigations on how the school system dialogues with public narratives that often acquire hegemony and ubiquity, influencing how society makes sense of historical events and processes.2 But, it is in the school room that the relationship between public history and education takes place in a concrete and productive way: in committed teacher training; in reflexive intervention and action-research projects, through partnerships between public universities and schools; in the understanding of the classroom as a place to create a school-based historical knowledge; in the acknowledgment of the different skills brought into contact in the relationship between teacher and student; and, not least, in the collective struggle for free speech in the classroom, considerably threatened in Brazil after the 2016 democratic rupture.3 In sum, in a history teaching that, by fostering critical thinking, makes the classroom a place for public history to flourish.
It is not surprising that, in a country with marked socioeconomic and educational inequality, public history arose in public (free) universities and acquired a civic dimension, closely linked to the realities that surround it—in Nießer and Tomann's words, more concerned with making citizens than with making money.4 Such an inclination towards a practice intended to create historical awareness and promoting the epistemological democratization of history certainly contributed to making the debates about an "applied history" (which for us sounds much more like a client-oriented history, such as the histories commissioned by companies) rather alien. Indeed, there is no major concern in Brazil about that rarely employed term.
Nießer and Tomann trace—in a situated way, as they rightly acknowledge, firmly grounding their article—the conceptual genealogy of the term "applied history," which is far from enjoying an unequivocal meaning. In contrast, they assume "public history" as a given, drawing on an entire pedagogy materialized in certificates and graduate programs and in the publication of methodological texts—guides and textbooks directly aimed at teaching—and anthologies and readers aimed at stabilizing the theoretical and conceptual canon of the area. Even so, the very diversity of these materials shows that public history is also a contentious concept.
I was struck by the authors' argument that "public and...