Thomas Bender has written a very instructive essay, Historians in Public. In it, he points out that academics used to be much better represented in mainstream publications, and more often wrote or presented to the general public than they do now. As he points out: "While the early graduate schools were committed to advanced research, they sought to educate civic leaders, not future academics", reminding us that both Woodrow Wilson and Henry Cabot Lodge held history doctorates. He also mentions something I hadn't known, that Frederick Jackson Turner first advanced his Frontier Thesis not in an academic essay but in a public address at the Chicago World's Fair.
Bender further refers to William James' (strikingly prescient) concerns about the overspecialisation of academia. Over 100 years ago, when the degree was just starting to become common in English-speaking academia, James recognised the dangers of overvaluing the PhD, and overproducing them. Although his concern was primarily those who failed to pass the degree, a similar concern could be expressed today for many who pass but are unable to find academic employment:
We of the university faculties are responsible for deliberately creating this new class of American social failures, and heavy is the responsibility. We advertise our "schools" and send out our degree-requirements, knowing well that aspirants of all sorts will be attracted, and at the same time we set a standard which intends to pass no man who has not native intellectual distinction. We know that there is no test, however absurd, by which, if a title or decoration, a public badge or mark, were to be won by it, some weakly suggestible or hauntable persons would not feel challenged, and remain unhappy if they went without it. We dangle our three magic letters before the eyes of these predestined victims, and they swarm to us like moths to an electric light. They come at a time when failure can no longer be repaired easily and when the wounds it leaves are permanent; and we say deliberately that mere work faithfully performed, as they perform it, will not by itself save them, they must in addition put in evidence the one thing they have not got, namely this quality of intellectual distinction. Occasionally, out of sheer human pity, we ignore our high and mighty standard and pass them. Usually, however, the standard, and not the candidate, commands our fidelity. The result is caprice, majorities of one on the jury, and on the whole a confession that our pretensions about the degree cannot be lived up to consistently. Thus, partiality in the favored cases; in the unfavored, blood on our hands; and in both a bad conscience,--are the results of our administration.
- William James, "The PhD Octopus", Harvard Monthly, March 1903. Full text
But Bender's thoughts on public engagement are particularly relevant at a time when academics everywhere are having to defend themselves against funding cuts and more often demonstrate the "relevance" or "impact" of their research to the general economy.
I can see two factors (at least) that have conspired to create the current situation. The first is a valuing of obscurantism in academic writing (which makes it unmarketable to the lay reader), and an academic reward system that does not value that type of public outreach, and indeed disdains those who write "mass market" work. The second is perhaps a reaction to the first, and that is that editors of mainstream publications will visibly shudder when offered an article "based on PhD research" - several have told me quite frankly that they don't want to look at submissions from academics because they tend to be unreadable. If we have become so rarified in our specialisations, can we be surprised if our role of communicating history to the public has been usurped by journalists?
While I can think of a number of high-profile historians who write for mainstream publications - Jill Lepore, Simon Schama, Victor Davis Hanson, Gil Troy, among others - the vast majority don't. Have we lost sight of the public as an audience as we focus our research? It does seem to be the case that the "educated layman" is a market not always covered in the current media, but with the branching out of digital opportunities, there should be avenues for interested readers and historians to connect. I hope so.