|March 17. 1947: The Second-to-Last Time an Historian |
Appeared on the Cover of Time**
Among other issues, Potter and Cronon both address what makes good historical writing good. And both Cronon and Potter put a very heavy emphasis on the need to keep historical writing accessible to non-historians and even non-academics. Here’s Potter:
Sometimes scholars are not even accessible to each other, much less colleagues in related fields. Conceptual categories that we take for granted but are obscure to non-professionals; overly-specialized or theoretical language, and “failing to notice the absence of those who don’t feel welcome” in an intellectually exclusive coterie are all weaknesses of practice that can emerge from qualities that are otherwise praiseworthy.
The result can be that despite popular enthusiasm for history, and the genuine desire of other historians to connect with our work, we run the risk of turning people off instead of tuning them in.
Without in any way diminishing the importance of this sentiment, I want to note how commonplace it is. Although in practice we might often honor it in the breach, the idea that historical writing ought to be broadly accessible is, I think, a core professional value held by most academic historians in the U.S. today.
Academic historians believe in broadly accessible historical writing for many of the reasons that Cronon lays out in his essay, which is entitled “Professional Boredom.” Citing, among other things, the History Channel, he notes that “no other academic discipline has done a better job of retaining a large public audience.” Moreover, Cronon adds that there are “essential contributions history can make to public understanding of all manner of problems in the present.” If we become too specialized or too boring, or even if we define professional history too narrowly, “the risks,” writes Cronon, “could not be more clear.”
I’m as much as a believer in broadly accessible history as Cronon or Potter. And, lord knows, I’m not in favor of boring history (though I think we can all think of great works of history that are boring). But the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.
Public interest in academic history is limited to a very small number of historians, generally writing on a small number of topics. And most popular works of history are written by authors who are not academic historians. The current New York Times Combined Print and E-Book Nonfiction Best Seller List contains four works of history (broadly understood) among the top fifteen books, none of them written by an academic historian: Steve Jobs by Walter Isaacson at #7, Killing Lincoln by Bill O’Reilly and Martin Dougard at #8, Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand at #10, and The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot at #13. No works by academic historians appear further down the list, either.
And most of us know from experience that, even if our books get noticed outside academic circles, most sell relatively few copies and find relatively small audiences. If you’ve ever tried pitching an idea for a historical monograph to a non-academic press or a literary agent, you get an even stronger sense of how different the popular market for history is from the academic one.
Anyone who watches the History Channel with any regularity knows that the kind of content they specialize in is very different from the work that academic historians do.
In this regard, it’s interesting to compare the academic discipline of history to such disciplines as English and philosophy. There’s actually huge popular interest in cultural criticism and philosophy, as the existence of E! (the cable network and website) and the voluminous “philosophy” section in any bookstore attest. But academic English scholars and academic philosophers understand themselves as doing something fundamentally different from, respectively, E! and the Deepak Chopra-heavy “philosophy” section of most bookstores. Academic historians, on the other hand, tend to see a variation of our own craft when we look at the History Channel or the New York Times Best Seller List.
And yet, this myth of the accessibility of academic history is, in many ways, a very productive one. As I’ve already said, I value readability. And though few academic historians are writing books for audiences much beyond our subdisciplines, let alone beyond the academy, the notion that one should write as if one were addressing a literate, general audience helps historians counteract the tendency of academic discourses to get ever more abstruse and hermetic. At least when I was in graduate school, many other disciplines seemed on occasion to put a positive value on their own abstruseness, presenting it as a sign of technical sophistication (e.g. philosophy and economics) or even their explicit opposition to negative values that they associated with readable texts (e.g. the literary disciplines).
But while I certainly want academic history to continue valuing clear, non-technical prose, I also think we should try to have a more realistic sense of who we reach and how we reach them. The myth of accessible academic history has its costs as well as its benefits.
To begin with, the myth of accessibility can devalue some of what academic historians do uniquely well. We produce knowledge about the past regardless of whether there is a mass market for the knowledge we produce. And since I don’t believe that the mass market does a good job of determining what’s worth knowing, I think we ought to moderate our polemics against specialization. Many good ideas–even ideas that eventually have a profound impact on broad, public conversations–start in abstruse corners of academic work. Think, for example, of Kuhn and the idea of a “paradigm shift.”
Secondly, if we are going to take seriously our role as interlocutors in larger, public debates, we shouldn’t count on traditional academic publications to do so. Academic historians frequently bemoan the fact that our nation’s public conversations about history often leave much to be desired. Clearer writing in our academic monographs, however valuable it is in and of itself, is not going to change this situation.
* I almost called Potter’s post “very smart”; those who’ve read it will understand why I didn’t!
** This conclusion based on a cursory online search of Time magazine covers; do not reproduce this thought in an academic work.