For the past couple of weeks I’ve been bothered by American Historical Association President Barbara Weinstein‘s most recent “From the President” column in Perspectives, the monthly newsletter of the AHA, titled “The Case of the Incredible Shrinking Historians?“.
In the essay, Weinstein is responding to a piece by Sam Tanenhaus that appeared in The New York Times on March 4, 2007 (“History Written in the Present Tense“). Tanenhaus’s essay was both a eulogy to Arthur Schlesinger Jr., and a critique of the historical profession for being so mired in the minutiae of our narrow specializations that we do a very good job of describing individual trees, but often miss the forest altogether.
Writing of some of the most popular recent books of history, Tanenhaus said, “These are books that, for all their merits, seem not only about the past but also, to some extent, mired in it. They are archival. And that may be the problem.”
His view of what is wrong with academic history really set Weinstein off. As she wrote in her response, “There are so many different angles to critique Tanenhaus’s dyspeptic assessment of the state of the historical profession that I am hard pressed to know where to start.”
But, of course, she found several ways to start, including accusing him of being nostalgic for a day when “almost all major historians (not to mention politicians) were white males.” After waving the “he’s a white male and sorry to have lost his status” club in Tanenhaus’s general direction, Weinstein says that, of course, she doesn’t think he’s a sexist. But isn’t the damage done?
What if she had said instead that he seemed nostalgic for a time when Southern whites lorded it over the African-American residents of their communities, but then said, of course she doesn’t think he’s a racist? I think we do ourselves no favors by launching attacks like this on those like Tanenhaus who live outside the rarified air of the academy and so don’t talk about us the way we’d like.
That backhanded slap at the editor of the NYT Book Review would be enough to bother me. But what really bothered me about her piece is her defense of the increasing narrowness of historical scholarship.
Weinstein rejects the idea that “big history” can be written by serious historians, contending that any attempt to “capture ‘the spirit of the times’ [would be] problematic not so much because it would be difficult to do, but rather because the enterprise itself seems spurious; it could only be done by suppressing some of those [multiple and conflicting] voices, and reinforcing certain hierarchies of knowledge and power that are then too easily confused with objective truth or special insight.”
I’m all for the argument that special insight and objective truth are pretty darn hard to find in the archives, and I gave up looking for them about half way through my dissertation research back in the mid-1990s. But does this mean that any attempt to write a history that is not so narrow that only a few dozen, or at best a few hundred, specialists will be able to actually understand what in the world we are saying is little more than an attempt to reinforce certain hierarchies of knowledge and power? That when we try to synthesize and generalize we are contributing to the suppression of the voices of the oppressed?
To use Weinstein’s own language, I’d say that this argument “seems spurious” to me.
Let’s be honest for a moment. Think about the last time you were at a backyard bar-b-que, or a Little League game, or a wedding reception and someone who was not in any way associated with academia asked you about your research. Did you describe in detail the theoretical underpinnings of your research? Did you discuss the intricacies of your analytical methods? And if you did, did you see their eyes glaze over?
It’s no wonder the vast majority of the output of academic historians sinks like a stone in the Amazon listings. And lest you think I’m some paragon of virtue when it comes to historical writing, I’m as guilty as everyone else. At last check, my book on radical Czech nationalism in late-Habsburg Austria was ranked 2,441,610 in the Amazon list.
I’m proud of that book and think it makes an important contribution to an important part of the historical endeavor–our attempts to understand how radical nationalist movements rose to such prominence in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in Europe. But when people ask me about it, I tell them it’s a book about that–understanding radical nationalism–rather than the details of the work. They mostly nod politely and if nationalism is an issue they’re interested in, they might ask a few follow up questions. But mostly, they say some version of “Oh, great. How are the kids doing in school this year?”
And who can blame them?
Until it becomes okay for academic historians to start writing the kinds of books that the general public wants to read, we need to stop lamenting the fact that our audiences are so small. And as long as our leading professional organization takes the view that to even try to do so “seems spurious”, we’re going to keep lamenting for quite some time to come.
5 thoughts on “The Shrinking Historian?”
In my department, AHA is a byword for petty academic politics; we are strongly discouraged from going to AHA meetings for any reason but job interviews (and even then, only if it absolutely can’t be avoided).
Given how very little discipline-wide attention is given to the balance (and interaction) between historical specialties, and how little attempt there is to call attention particular areas that are especially important, it seems like the current focus on so many until-now-unheard historical voices (without a credible effort to put such voices into a larger framework and balance them appropriately) is just a product of academic politics/patronage, pure and simple.
The discipline is catering to now-powerful interests within the academy in order to secure whatever footing it can, to retain and expand its number of professorships by whatever means are immediately available. So its not surprising to see a defense of the status-quo ad-hoc and arbitrary system of assigning weight in the broad corpus of historical scholarship.
Any attempt to fit the breadth of modern, over-specialized history into a broad narrative (however multi-faceted) is bound to show that some areas of study are just less relevant than others. How could it not, without naturalizing the power balance reflected by current trends in subject-selection? And since it’s easier to cut history jobs than make new ones, any rebalancing of emphasis is going to cost the discipline in the short term. So it’s not surprising to see this kind of reprehensible conservatism from the top of the AHA.
Thank you for this post, Mills. Having only defended my dissertation in December while teaching broad gen ed classes, I am all too keenly aware of this disconnect between history as we do it ourselves and how we interact with normal mortals.
It’s with this issue in mind that I started a group at BlogCatalog to talk about history. There are a few PhD’s and MA’s there, but many plain old history buffs. The group is only a few weeks old, but so far we’re doing okay. I am enjoying trying to talk history with nonprofessionals who are also not my students. Whether or not I’m doing a good job at it remains to be seen.
Ditto to many of Sage comments in support of your analysis. We’re often missing the broad strokes and then wonder why our own students cannot put history into its broader context. I think one of the SUNY schools has developed a “broad-field” doctoral program that teaches future historians how to not over-specialize so that no one else understands you except for a few, select fellow specialists in your particular field.
There are so many topics and connects to explore in history and wiping away the broad themes as being only in support of the dead, white males is just ridiculous.
Carol Berkin at Baruch is one of the “traditionally” trained historians who broke out to write for popular audiences and has been criticized for same. Yet, thousands of people will know more about women in the American Revolution thanks largely to her book, Revolutionary Mothers. It’s a manageable work for those people who don’t get paid to read for a living and tells some great stories. Who could ask for more from anything they read?
Despite some of its challenges dealing with where to go next in technology, H-Net is one of the best examples of organizations who allow a broader membership within its larger context. While some individual communities believe gatekeeping is important to what they are doing, others explore areas traditionally ignored by the “authorities” in the profession. H-Net used to meet in conjunction with the AHA and this year is moving it’s more official meeting space to the Social Science History Association – a community that is more interested in technology and is more diverse in its active membership.
Blogs like yours, H-Net, and other social networking approaches in person and online make our profession much more rich and diverse.
A very interesting, thought provoking essay, Dr. Kelly. You write, “Until it becomes okay for academic historians to start writing the kinds of books that the general public wants to read, we need to stop lamenting the fact that our audiences are so small. And as long as our leading professional organization takes the view that to even try to do so ‘seems spurious,’ we’re going to keep lamenting for quite some time to come.”
I agree entirely. As sales figures attest, during the late 1980s and the 1990s, many members of the public bought and enjoyed reading books by Stephen Ambrose, without focusing on — or perhaps even being aware of — the attribution issues which academic historians have discussed in professional circles. I think it’s entirely possible to shake your head at the known problems with some of Ambrose’s sourcing but also to consider the story telling skills that made his books appealing and accessible to the public.
I also agree with you that it should have been possible for Barbara Weinstein to describe the fact that Schlesinger came to prominence in a different age without waving what you call the white male club. Journalism was different in the early 1960s, there were no Bob Woodwards and Carl Bernsteins doggedly investigating stories. Viewers turned to NBC, CBS or ABC for their news. There was no 24-hour news cycle, no cable television. Although the White House practiced what in Kennedy’s day was called “managing the news,” spin control and message management had not yet been raised to the level practiced later in Washington. And the age of Special Prosecutors and Independent Counsels still lay on the horizon. When a former insider such as Schlesinger wrote about the near past, members of the general public viewed the revelations differently than they now might do. The first draft of history practiced by journalists was different, often less revealing, in the days before Watergate.
Tanenhaus believes that it is “not that our leaders have shrunk, but that, in some sense, our historians have.” But the frame through which historians now are viewed also has changed. The fragmentation of news sources and the increasing reliance on echo chambers that validate an audience member’s pre-existing views make it much harder for an historian to persuade some readers that his book is worth picking up in the first place. These days, some historians blog and make their political affiliation or personal partisan feelings known. Some publish op eds in newspapers, criticizing politicians of one party or another. All of this adds to the difficulty of commanding “the broad cultural authority” that Mr. Schlesinger and his contemporaries did.
In addition to taking into account the changes in the public and historians, consider also all the changes in management theory from Frederick Taylor’s “scientific management” in 1911 through Total Quality Management, job process re-engineering, Sigma Six, and more recent initiatives. Management theory has moved away from paternalism and now encourages not just top down communication, but also 360 feedback, collaboration, etc. Based simply on their own experiences with workplace hierarchies, perhaps some members of the public viewed Presidents through a somewhat different prism when JFK was in the White House than many now do.
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