Sunday, May 29, 2005

This week HNN ran an exceptional essay by Dr. David Greenberg that delved deeply into the divide between professional, academic historians and " popular" historians like the late Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough. Academic historians usually regard the latter with bitter disdain. Greenberg attempted to look at the two sides with some evenhandedness and objectivity - at least more than professional historians usually evince:

This month marks the publication of 1776, David McCullough's rousing, feel-good tale of how George Washington led a ragtag crew of continental soldiers into their fateful battle for independence. It's safe to predict that 1776—the latest in a series of heavily hyped history blockbusters—will vault to the top of the best-seller lists, beguiling readers with its reverent portrait of Washington's heroism and the dulcet cadences of McCullough's finely wrought prose.

It will also drive many academic historians up the wall.

Our exasperation will stem partly, to be sure, from envy of McCullough's undeniable gift for storytelling and of his smashing popularity. But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered. McCullough's fans won't care. They typically have little use for what they regard—not always wrongly—as the narrowly focused, politically correct, jargon-clotted academic monographs that dwell on arcane issues instead of big, meaty topics like politics, diplomacy, and war.

Instead of grumbling over the public's middlebrow book buying tastes, the best thing academic historians can do is to try to offer them something better. A number of our own practices lead us away from engaging the public as we should. I've seen students entering graduate school aspiring to write like Arthur Schlesinger, only to be shunted into producing pinched, monographic studies. I've seen conferences full of brilliant minds unable to find an interesting presentation to attend that isn't literally read off the page in a soporific drone. We write too much for each other—and, as we do, a public hungry for good history walks into Barnes & Noble and gets handed vapid mythmaking that uninformed critics ratify as "magisterial" or "definitive."

Aside from the natural division between horizontal-thinking generalists and often arcane specialists operating at very high level of vertical expertise, the problem academics have with popular or amateur historians is really one that is self-referential.

First, academic historians, even those used to teaching freshmen year survey courses have a misleadingly skewed view of the level of basic historical knowledge among the general public. University profs tend to deal most often with other experts or aspiring experts ( grad students) in their own field. Recall that college students are usually in the top two deciles of the Bell Curve in terms of intelligence and their knowledge and analytical prowess in terms of history is often exceptionally spotty. These freshmen then represent a mental baseline for most historians but unfortunately its the wrong one to use when writing for the general public.

Trying to then go out and write a history book that can be enjoyed and understood by the remaining 80 % of the population after spending extended time in that narrow, rarified, campus environment is hard. Academic historians often wildly underestimate the degree to which the fundamentals must be coherently explained before the public can grasp the point the historian would really like to make. Good storytelling is important because it is the " hook" for the reader to follow the subsequent analysis. We're mentally " wired" for narrative structures, not expository writing, which is why no one likes to read their computer software instruction manuals.

The second point of self-referentiality is, I'm sorry to say, whether anyone likes to hear it or not, political. Holding even a " mainstream" or " centrist" position in the historical profession puts you very far to the Left of the general public, in terms of the mean on critical issues of public policy. And no, it isn't always greater amounts of knowledge that lead historians to the " correct" conclusions -that is simply an arrogant conceit -it's a difference of values.

Eric Foner's political desire to substitute Social-Democracy for the currently influential libertarian definition of " Freedom" in American culture is a result of personal philosophy and preference for socialist politics - not an inarguable conclusion drawn from his research on intellectual and political history. I can agree with Dr. Foner the presentation of his evidence without accepting his normative judgement in his conclusion.

The combination of poorly prefaced writing, esoteric Left positions, use of weird jargon and the media's preference for sound bites makes academic historians look more than a little nuts to the public when something radical pops into their USA Today front page article. The media's editing style is not the fault of the historian but it is a reality to be considered when making an argument in the popular press.

Historians, for all the good work they do and the analytical skills they cultivate, do not " own " history. No group does. History is the intellectual commons of humanity for everyone to take from or add to with the only appropriate standard of judgment being truth.
I've been working as a tour guide in Washington DC for the past year, spending 8-9 hours a day telling stories about the history of the city, and I can tell you that there is a huge demand for historical tours. Business is booming, so much so that we are not able to meet the demand. Academic historians should be recognizing this demand for their knowledge and acting to meet this demand.

"Trying to then go out and write a history book that can be enjoyed and understood by the remaining 80 % of the population after spending extended time in that narrow, rarified, campus environment is hard."

Yup, the insular environment of the academic is not good for the culture. But how many of the academics take advantage of the opportunities to work directly with the public as a tour guide at nat'l and state parks or at sites like Mt. Vernon or Monticello? These places are always looking for summer guides. You won't make much money, but I guarantee you will sharpen your storytelling skills and learn how to communicate essential facts within limted periods of time to many different kinds of people.

"Good storytelling is important because it is the "hook" for the reader to follow the subsequent analysis. We're mentally "wired" for narrative structures..."

The narrative structure is the most efficient and effective way to communicate historical ideas and information. Historians who ignore this have no business complaining that they don't have an audience. I don't listen to bad music, why would I want to read badly written history?

From the linked essay:
"But my academic colleagues will (or should) raise legitimate objections to the approach of a book like this—the surfeit of scene-setting and personality, the meager analysis and argument, the lack of a compelling rationale for writing about a topic already amply covered."

What's wrong with just telling a story of what happened? Yes there is a place for "analysis and argument", but does every writing on an historical subject have to have "analysis and argument"?
"[T]he lack of a compelling rationale..." This is ridiculous. If McCoulough wants to spend his time writing this story--who cares? Shouldn't we be writing from generation to generation the stories of the past in contemporary terms?

Academic historians need to stop whining. If they want a popular audience they should write for one. If you choose to play the oboe, you shouldn't complain that the guy playing the electric guitar is getting all the chicks.
Another beautifully written and argued essay about the importance of history. Every point you've made is so important; I hope your arguments receive a wide audience. Thanks, also, for the comments added by Phil. I've seen with my own eyes how many Americans visiting Washington have a great hunger to learn more about our country's history.
I think the same can be said for any sort of popular writing from any profession or field of study. The public cannot be confused with an audience of experts in any particular field, whether history, science, mathematics, business, literature, the arts, an so on. If one wants to put out a popular book, almost certainly it needs to be one that is built around storytelling. The general public will not understand strict analysis or mathematical derivations, and has no attention span for such. But whether you talk about McCullough in history or Isaac Asimov in science (who had a talent for science fiction, of course), they could connect with the public remarkably well, and I think that is good. I think experts in the field should appreciate the fact that there is an interest in much of what is done in their discipline, and any attention and learning is of value.
Intriguing post.

I like Phil's idea about seasonal tour guides - what a mutually beneficial solution. I have taken tours in several countries in the mideast and found that tour guides are both highly qualified and well regarded. A number of those guides were professional archaeologists as their 'regular' profession.

I am not sure that all historians would welcome such a humbling experience.
Hey Miss P.

Thank you much for your kind words - always greatly appreciated:o)


I'm going to have to concur with Stu that I can't see too many of the historian's I've met going for the tour guide idea. Ambrose would have been superb though - he could speak very movingly and tell a story almost as well from. a podium as he could from a keyboard. Down to earth guy as well. Only saw him in person once ( Ambrose had gone to graduate school with my own grad adviser who said that Ambrose knew the business end of publishing as well as he he did the writing)but it was an impressive performance.

There was an old guy in DC, shorter and a little stout, who used to give a marvellous walking tour in the historic district of Georgetown. Had the period costume, very avuncular/grandfatherly in manner. Caught his tour on a number occasions and it was always great. Hopefully he's still at it (have not bee back to DC since 2001)
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Great blog containing a reference to jargon. Can you understand it all - wa cant so we made a jargon buster directory that anyone can add to or use to bust their own encountered jargon. Keep it all plain english I say. Best regards and keep up the great postings.
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