Last week, we had a conversation here inspired by incoming American Historical Association President Tony Grafton’s call to arms in this month’s Perspectives, the AHA’s monthly magazine. I’ll republish here what I saw as the nut of his argument:
For history has its own special place in these indictments. Critics rebuke historians for drawing politicized conclusions from their research—and even, in some notorious cases, for deliberately distorting or inventing the evidence to support their own left-wing views.They criticize authors of textbooks and public historians for subverting patriotism, claiming that they emphasize violence, inequality, and oppression in European and American life at the expense of more positive qualities. . .
. . . . . .
[T]he indictment is hydra-headed. . . . It’s here that the real difficulty arises. The real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical: it’s that our research and teaching are nothing more than sterile pursuits of mind-numbing factoids, tedious and predictable exercises in group think, or politicized exercises in deploying the evidence to prove predetermined conclusions. If we can’t answer those criticisms convincingly, we will lose on all fronts: history positions will disappear, and so will neighboring departments in foreign languages and other fields, without which we can’t function.
The discussion in the comments here included some great points and contributed many important nuances to the conversation: many of you noted that our perception of these issues varies by the kinds of institutions academic historians were educated in and now work in; others commented on problems of anti-intellectualism within the profession and within our own universities; there were several comments about the double-bind most of us are in with respect to the adjunctification of the profession: in spite of popular representations of our work in the media and in political discourse, most of us in fact spend much more time teaching than we do in research, but 4-4 and 5-5 teaching loads don’t lead to better teaching, they just lead to more teaching. And the pious critics of higher ed who insist that we spend more, not less, time in the classroom don’t in fact want to spend the money it would take to pay for more higher-quality instruction, which would mean reducing, not expanding, the teaching loads of most of us–they just want to beat us rhetorically with the unfounded assumption that those large classes and scantron exams are due to faculty research agendas rather than the casualization of academic labor.
I think Grafton is correct that “[t]he real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical,” but I have real doubts about our profession’s ability to answer his call with a polemic or ideological defense of our work. Historians are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck. (H/t to Jeremy Young on this point.) A professor of mine once explained to me that this is why History is, in his words, the “queen” of all disciplines. But queens don’t have to explain or justify themselves, whereas we must formulate some kind of coherent response to these attacks on the value of our research and teaching.
In many ways, I think we’re done in not because our work is “too inaccessible” or too much of an elite conversation among specialists, but rather because it’s too accessible. As I said in response to a comment in last week’s thread, “People in the natural sciences and STEM fields do this too–and no one is staking out their national meetings or complaining about the narrow, technical nature of their research. We actually publish books that the general public can get their hands on for free in their local libraries [or] via [Interlibrary Loan]–-not just narrow, technical journal articles. . . . there is an unreasonable expectation that anything in History or English be immediately transparent and useful to lay readers that I think is mistaken. We are not hobbyists building backyard rockets–we are professionals, and we need to have professional conversations with other professionals whose meaning and importance is not always transparent.” We are accused of being obscurantists, but apparently most of us write in plain and clear enough language that our critics can understand it just enough to dismiss its importance–usually for ideological reasons, not because they can address the merits or faults of the argument or the evidence.
I would also add that portraying graduate education and our profession as an elite, insider club is a funhouse mirror view of what the professionalization of history has meant for the practice of history: while the American historical profession is overall much whiter and more masculine than the U.S. population, the professionalization of history has actually diversified the practice of history far beyond the days in which it was only WASP gentlemen (or very occasionally, lady) scholars with inheritances who had the time and money to spend writing books. If that were still a requirement for the job, I’d never have become a historian, nor would most of us working in the field today.
In the end, I think Grafton answers his own questions very well, specifically with his call to defend research as the cornerstone of our work:
[W]e need to make another argument as well—one that has become hard to frame in a way that is both cogent and accurate, but one that is nonetheless vital: the argument that scholarship matters. By doing history as well as we can, we are searching for exact knowledge, and teaching students, undergraduate and graduate, to do the same. We’re modeling honest, first-hand inquiry. That austere, principled quest for knowledge matters: matters more than ever in the current media world, in which lies about the past, like lies about the present, move faster than ever before. The problem is that it’s a quest without a Grail. The best conclusions we can draw, scrutinizing our evidence and our inferences as fiercely and scrupulously as we can, will be provisional. We will disagree with our contemporaries, and the next generation will replace our conclusions, and theirs, with new ones. But the fact that the search goes on—and the energy and integrity that the searchers put into it—matter deeply, for the health of our culture.
Any of us can do this, at every level of the profession: graduate students, adjuncts and lecturers, and tenure-track faculty; those of us who teach at community colleges, “directional” universities, SLACs, or R-1s. We can collectively make a case for the value of our work both in its specific context where we teach, as well as for the professional study and writing of history more generally, and we can do it with reference to the larger context in which most of us work: most of us do this without much grant support and while simultaneously juggling a substantial (if not crushing) teaching load. And we can stick to the specific, the particular, and the local–we don’t have to sacrifice nuance or complexity if we speak from our own experience. We can also make the case for how an Anthropology or Sociology course was critical to framing our questions, or how training in foreign languages opened up new archival sources to us, and why it’s important for us geopolitically as well as intellectually to read in foreign archives. (At least it’s a place to start.)
Blogs and other online forums might be a good place to have these conversations–they’re the best chance that most of us have, since (as I noted last week) newspapers and magazines only permit the most eminent and prestigiously employed among us to write for them. The professional critics of higher education won’t listen or care–but some of our neighbors and community members might.
What do the rest of you think?
19 Responses to “History Under Attack, part II: Can splitters be polemicists?”