Policing boundaries.

In some ways, I suppose this is an interesting post.  Although it feels like I’ve been reading iterations of the argument therein for years, and I’m not sure it amounts to much more than a tonier version (British!) of “get off my lawn!” I sympathize with the author’s anxiety about the future of history. That said, I don’t think the problem is that the profession has been “taken over by non-specialists.” Or, more charitably, I sometimes share the author’s frustration when I see yet another hack on TV with the title historian after her or his name (I’m looking at you, Doris Kearns Goodwin). And I agree with the author that all too often these people don’t do any heavy historical lifting. Which is to say, their work, even when it’s not dead wrong, isn’t especially interesting or analytically sophisticated. But I’m not sure this is an especially new or threatening phenomenon.

In fact, as anyone who’s even a bit familiar with the history of the discipline[1] in the United States knows, there’s only been a profession for approximately a century.  And for much of that time, non-professional historians have written history and enjoyed expert status in the eyes of the public.  This probably means that the profession of history, in the US at least, isn’t a very good profession, as professions go, because it’s not especially adept at policing its boundaries and establishing the authority of its members.   Still, I’m not really sure I want the boundaries policed any better than they’re being policed at present.  Or at least I’d worry that the unintended consequences — actually, they’d probably be intended consequences, right? — of policing the boundaries might be worse even than simply throwing the profession’s borders wide open and offering amnesty to any undocumented interlopers who’ve already managed to sneak inside.

A big part of my new book[2] deals with how different people have different perspectives on how to study the past properly.  Some of the people in question are professional historians.  Some  aren’t.  Some of them produce what I think of as good history:  well sourced, analytically interesting, carefully argued, reasonably accessible.  Some don’t.  But a PhD isn’t the key variable that determines who does and who does’t do good history.  I mean, I understand that it’s important for professional historians to have some way of establishing their authority and regulating their disciplinary activities.  I’m just not entirely sure what that way should be.

I’d also quibble with the author when he says, of historians’ willingness to “spend a large amount of time on the phone conveying (free of charge) the results of her work” so that someone else, usually a journalist or popular historian, can present it to the public, that it’s “difficult to imagine many other academic disciplines where this problem is anything like as significant.”  First, I think political scientists regularly share their research with journalists and pundits (or with the lackeys who then feed it to pundits).  So insofar as this state of affairs is a problem, it’s a problem shared with at least one other discipline.  Second, if one wants one’s work to be made available to the public, one either has to do it oneself or find someone else to serve as a mouthpiece.  Personally, I’m delighted when journalists or popular historians want to talk about my work — though I do hope they’ll credit me with any insights they glean from the conversation.[3]  And third, is this really the issue that most obviously threatens the future of history?  I tend to think not.

I do, though, believe the author is onto something when he identifies the move toward market-based measures of the utility of history as a serious threat to the discipline’s longterm health.[4] But I think it may be an equally grave problem that so much history that’s now being written will be completely ignored.  To walk around the book exhibit at the AHA[5] is to be confronted with a very cruel reality:  the overwhelming majority of scholarly monographs being produced each year will never be read by anyone at all.[6]  Not by students, not by other experts in the field, perhaps not even by a reviewer writing in a professional journal.  Although I do understand that these books represent knowledge that has been produced, and maybe that’s enough, it is to weep:  an immense waste of time and resources.  Still, I can’t help but feel like until the profession decides, and I mean really decides, that scholarly books are on borrowed time, we’re edging ever closer to the precipice.[7]  Should the profession decide to embrace the article[8] as a measure of scholarly achievement, that would leave the market to determine who gets to write history books.  For what it’s worth, I think we’re nearly there already, though it wouldn’t hurt if we had some effective leadership as we continue walking down this fraught path.  Or we can just bumble along.

Which leads me to the author’s point with which I most agree:  fthat the leading professional organizations are failing us.  Forget the fact that they aren’t policing the discipline’s boundaries, which they aren’t; they also can’t seem to come up with any effective policies regarding contingent labor, the related glut of PhDs facing the ruined wastes of what used to be known as the job market, and, again, the future of the book.  I also agree with the suggestion that professional historians should become more involved in the discussion about the crisis of history education — if, amidst the push for ever more STEM education, we’re still having that discussion at all.

So in the end, I’m for more scholarly and pedagogical populism rather than less, leaving me fundamentally at odds with the author of the linked post.  That said, I don’t think anything I’ve suggested above is going to save the profession.  For that, I’m afraid we might need divine intervention.  Does anyone happen to have David McCullough’s phone number or e-mail address?

[1]  If you want to learn the history of history, at least as it’s been practiced in the United States, all you have to do is read Peter Novick. Sure, there are too many names floating around the book. And sure, it’s probably longer than it needs to be. But it’s still an excellent introduction to the topic, especially if you tell yourself that it’s okay not to know all of the names. Or if you make a really detailed chart of the names, and keep track of them that way. In which case, send it to me, and I’ll post it here. Or I’ll publish it under my own name. Because I’m like that.

[2]  You do know I have a new book, right?  Because if not, what’s the point?

[3]  This, I think, actually is a very annoying problem.  People rip off scholars all the time.  Journalists and pundits steal ideas from professional historians and pass them off as their own.  That sucks.  No, it really does.  The most notorious recent case I can think of involves Brown University’s MIcheal Vorenberg, from whose Final Freedom:  The Civil War, Abolition of Slavery, and the Thirteenth Amendment  it seems Tony Kushner stole big chunks while writing the screenplay for Lincoln.  But is there anything to be done about it?  I sort of doubt it.

[4]  Indeed, I didn’t know that “British universities” were now “under the control of the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills.”  That sounds rather crappy.  And while the University of California isn’t quite there just yet, it certainly feels like we’re heading that way.

[5]  The American Historical Association’s annual meeting, newb.  It’s a terrible thing.

[6]  This is hyperbole, yes.  But I’d like you to allow it to stand unchallenged, please.

[7]  I should add, just so you know how very self-sacrificing I am, that such a move would hurt me, because I can’t write an article to save my life.

[8]  Yes, I’m aware that journals have their own problems.  So let’s go open access.

[9]  But of course I’ve also completely forgotten how to write a post of my own, as evidenced by this monstrosity, so I probably shouldn’t be throwing stones.


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