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.