During his tenure leading the American Historical Association, William Cronon has been using his “From the President” column, which appears monthly in Perspectives on History, to explore the various ways in which people seek to understand the past. He’s been comparing and contrasting the habits of professional historians with other people who study the past, such as popular and amateur historians. Cronon’s overarching objective, it seems to me, is to convince professional historians to make their scholarship more accessible to a larger public, without losing the scrupulous disciplinary standards which we’ve been conditioned to since our first graduate seminar. This is a laudable goal, even though, as Ben Alpers rightly pointed out a few months ago, in response to one of Cronon’s editorials, “the story we tell ourselves about academic history appealing to a mass audience is to a very great extent a myth.”
Analysis or synthesis: which should we prefer?
Is it better to explore tightly bounded specialized topics by asking small unasked questions that can be answered as rigorously as possible, combining previously unknown primary documents and technical arguments in original ways whether or not they ultimately matter very much? Or is it better to range widely across the historical landscape, borrowing insights from secondary sources to make large claims, relying even on documents everyone already knows to pursue big familiar questions which however unanswerable, we all recognize to be undeniably important?
Cronon loves his false choices. Of course good historians should closely analyze their subjects in original ways. And of course we should also put our subjects in a broad enough context so as to make our work relevant, which requires synthesis. But Cronon points out that where we’re trained more to do the former, the public is hungrier for the latter. “The Big Questions of history are often what members of the public most want historians to discuss. Yet Big Questions are precisely what our training has taught us to be wary about tackling—and what the sharp knives of our colleagues make us fear we would be unprofessional even to ask.”