Monday, December 20, 2004

Marc Shulman has a couple of interesting posts up; the first on how professional historians rate George W. Bush and another from Oxblog on a realist critique of an American president. I won't spoil the second post by naming the critiquer but he was in my view not a realist but one of the biggest fools who ever posed as an American statesman. Had his views prevailed in foreign policy the world might have become a very grim place.

For those interested in the first topic, HNN has had a similar discussion recently where their survey revealed 81 % of professional historians rated George W. Bush a "failure " - thus demonstrating once again the political gulf between a radical left to liberal academic world and the rest of America is substantial.

In the old days - roughly my grandfather's time - the unwritten rule for historical writing was not to tackle subjects any closer to the historian than approximately before the French Revolution. This rule began to break down during WWII when Pieter Geyl wrote his seminal Napoleon, For and Against while living in Nazi occupied Holland, which drew daringly obvious parallels to current events. After the war, journalist William Shirer shattered all historical shibboleths in 1960 by publishing his monumental The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich. Shirer's book suffered the flaws expected from an author with too much proximity to his subject both in terms of experience ( he covered Nazi Germany and Adolf Hitler as a reporter) and time but in doing so he launched a vast field of research for historians and political scientists alike.

Today, historians comment openly and frequently on current events - I'm a prime example having been trained as an academic historian though that's not my occupation - overall I think this is a good thing because historians bring both an unusual body of context knowledge to the table as well as ( hopefully) rigorous analytical methodology. I have a number of historians like Judith Klinghoffer, Juan Cole and the Cliopatriarchs and cognate scholars like Milt Rosenberg, Thomas Barnett and The Volokh Conspiracy on my blogroll for this very reason - their professional insight that journalists and pundits typically lack.

That being said, academics make a terrible misjudgement by misrepresenting their instant analysis of contemporary events on their blogs or in op-ed pieces as sound scholarship, particularly historical scholarship. It isn't. It's informed, expert opinion and interesting to be sure, compared to lightweight ruminating by airhead anchors in the MSM but the methodology, documents and peer review simply are not there. The official declassified state papers for American foreign policy - The Foreign Relations of the United States series- is only just now opening up the Nixon-Ford years to scrutiny. There is much left for this period in the National Archives, at the CIA, at Defense and at presidential libraries to be declassified - to say nothing of the Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton and Bush II administrations.

There are a lot of assumptions about modern presidencies culled from memoirs, interviews, leaks and flat-out urban legends that have grown through repetition into conventional wisdom. Some of it is pure nonsense that will eventually be brutally debunked - like Eisenhower's former image as a genial, out-of-touch, caretaker that concealed the reality of a ruthless and determined Chief executive, deeply influenced by his WWII supreme command experience, who kept an ironfisted control over foreign affairs and intelligence policy.

Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush and Clinton will look different to our children than to us. So will George W. Bush. Their view will likely be much closer to the truth than our own.
This is just a small subset of a wider disease, the expert in one field spouting off about another. It does the least damage when the fields are closely related such as an organic chemist talking about inorganic chemistry but the rate at which useful knowledge declines in distance from your own specialty is greater than the rate at which your reputation for expertise declines. I don't want to make it a partisan matter as the right as no more scruples on this than the left though it's currently more a left problem because there are more prominent left academics.

I expect in the next few decades this will balance out. Until that happens, the right will be more interested in the issue than the left out of pure self interest (just like the right used to be a lot more interested than the left in fixing political gerrymandering when they controlled fewer legislatures).

I have an Uncle who does this quite regularly. He's a genius with two hard science PhD's in completely unrelated fields, in one of which he's probably a top ten " go-to " guy for seemingly intractable problems. Long list of publications to his credit and he taught at several top tier universities here and abroad. I'm genuinely in awe of his expertise and intellectual abilities and relish our conversations.

However he will expound with equal certainty on just about anything under the sun - including my own field where he sometimes knows a lot less than he realizes.

Drives his wife nuts too.
I have run into this phenomenon as well. It bothers me to no end to have my professors, who no doubt are intelligent people, opine on any topic under the sun. From a student's perspective, aside from the fact that you are paying good money to take class on a certain topic and not a class on the ones your professor wishes to delve into, in the cases where the professor is saying something that you know to be inaccurate or simply outside the relm of his or her expertise you have little recourse other than to politely disagree. Yet, often times whatever was said by the professor carries the weight of academic credibility even if it is a classics professor haranguing on the folly of the Iraq war or an economics professor telling her students why, after Bush's election victory, the country is now doomed. The upshot being that a lot of students come away either pissed off or misled.
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I think that historians have a perfect right to express their opinions on any subject whatever. What weight I accord that opinion may vary. Even within what's putatively their area of expertise I may not accord an opinion with any particular weight—areas of expertise are extraordinarily narrow these days.

In addition I was once a PhD candidate myself and so I'm unconvinced as to whether an advanced degree demonstrates brilliance, scholarship, or tenacity and the willingness to put up with enormous amounts of BS. Probably a little of all of the above.

As to current historians' opinions of the sitting president—their opinions have exactly the same amount of weight as mine. That's the beauty of our system. There are some subjects that are too important to be left up to experts.
Historians can aid understanding by comparing and contrasting important current events with events that took place long enough ago so that facts have displaced opinions and dispassionate appraisals have replaced partisanship.

The two-paragraph comment (or the sound bite) makes this impossible. But having your name splashed around as many places as possible means that you'll be able to sell more books (if you still have enough time to write them).

What field of study, if I may ask ?

In regards to narrowness of expertise, I was in a mixed research group of MA and PHD candidates at one time and as we went around on our topics I often had the internal, unexpressed reaction of " Wow ! That's really...insignificant".

Some of the modern university drive to have their advanced degree students " produce new knowledge" ends up being expressed as mining for trivialities that no one will ever be able to question the student on.
Hah. Historian trained. So was I. Bloody hell. Actually, it's not bad training for analytics - when mixed with econ and finance.
Econ is extremely important, IMHO, any historian who attempts to tackle foreign policy/world history without knowing it well ( really knowing it - not by memorizing some cartoonish field jargon) it is flying blind.

My mentor was part of the Open Door School and was one of William Appleman William's early disciples so he required his grad and doctoral students to tackle heavy-duty archival research in USG international economic policy. He was old-school on scholarship in general and often left the cultural-social types among his students desperately flailing to keep up. It was good for them intellectually, in my opinion, to deal with some real substance that required puzzling out.

He didn't care for either my politics or my free-market bias but appreciated having at least somebody present who understood why it mattered.
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