November 19, 2003

History as Self-Help: A Draft Proposal

My fellow historians,

Our field has lost its lustre. Numerous surveys inform us that high school students rank history as the most boring subject ever; the AHA reports that the history major now accounts for a mere 2 percent of all bachelor's degrees; and all available indicators suggest the academic history job market crashed some time in the late 1990s and has yet to make a recovery. In short, things are looking rather grim.

Cast off your gloom.

Inspired by two rather different items that I came across quite recently, I propose to take us out of the rut we now find ourselves in. By "quite recently" I mean within the last hour or so. Please consider this proposal an early draft.

The first item is Rebecca Mead's review of Rachel Greenwald’s Find a Husband After 35 Using What I Learned at Harvard Business School. I like that title: it's not "how to find a husband," but rather "find a husband" issued as a sort of directive. The title also tells us, of course, that Greenwald has a Harvard MBA and that she means to apply her business expertise to the area of the marriage market. To this end, she has devised a 15-point program, which she describes as “a ‘strategic plan’ to help you ‘market’ yourself to find your future husband.” Apparently, it's all about branding, targeting and marketing:

'When you’ve finished this book, you will be able to devise and advertise your personal brand, know how to get out of your rut, be able to create a winning plan to increase the volume of men you meet, conduct an exit interview and much more,' Greenwald promises.

There is also talk of "rigorous market testing," "focus groups," "online marketing," telemarketing and even the old-fashioned direct mail campaign.

While some of her strategies sound "achingly familiar," Mead suggests, Greenwald appears to be proposing something new: never mind all this "women who love too much" agony, get out there and circulate. I'm sure Greenwald is basically right about this (whatever one thinks of the personal "branding"). And I'm not so sure this is so very different from what our mothers and grandmothers told us. But the conceit of the marketing strategy is obviously a new twist on an old theme. And it appears to resonate with some significant segment of the reading public: this review calls Greenwald "the hottest thing to hit America's dating scene since Sex and the City" and notes that her book has hit the bestseller lists.

The second item is a letter from William Robertson to Miss Hepburn of Monkrig, dated 12 January 1759. William Robertson was a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment and one of the period's most celebrated -- and commercially successful* -- historians. As for his correspondant...well, I'm afraid I can't tell you much about Miss Hepburn of Monkrig. Indeed, I can't even supply you with her first name. I can report, however, that in his Life of Adam Smith (1895) John Rae described her as "one of those gifted literary ladies who were then not infrequently to be found in the country houses of Scotland" (already, the gifted literary lady in her country house was viewed in the light of a charming anachronism). Rae also noted that Roberston sent Hepburn the manuscript of his History of Scotland (1759) "piece by piece as he wrote it" in order to benefit from her comments and criticism.

Miss Hepburn was grieving over the recent death of her father when Robertson wrote her as follows:

It is very unlucky that the inactivity of female life does not present you with any business, which is the great amusement & resource of men under distress. How to supply this defect I know not. Can you contrive nothing so interesting as to engross your attention, & to fill up your time. Is there no History which is new to you & which you would wish to read?

Now, please don't allow yourself to be distracted by that bit about the "inactivity of female life" as "unlucky." Yes, I know what you're thinking: he's reducing a complex set of legal, economic, political and social norms and structures to a question of luck? But never mind: we can do our gender analysis some other time. Just now, I want you to consider that he has recommended the reading of history as a coping strategy, and that he has done so in all sincerity and as an expression of real concern. In other words, I ask you to think about the therapeutic possibilities of history.

Fellow historians, the solution to our malaise couldn't be more obvious, and frankly, I'm surprised it's taken me this long to figure it out: Historians need to move aggressively into the self-help market. I'm talking books; tapes; weekend seminars; greatest-hits-of-the-Hapsburgs inspirational videos; page-a-day calendars; Anthony Robbins meets Thomas Babington Macaulay and discovers he has finally met his match.

Think about it:
A Harvard MBA writes a husband-hunting manual based on the conventions of the business self-help guide. Meanwhile, the business gurus have been drawing inspiration from history for at least a decade now: thus, we have Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun, Leadership Secrets of Elizabeth I and Elizabeth I, CEO, Lincoln on Leadership, to name just a few. Where are the historians in all of this?

Consider the market potential that has yet to be tapped. Do you specialize in the history of women? An update of the Plutarchan "women worthies" mode – something along the lines of Women Who Lived Too Much – could get you a spot on Oprah. Do you have a passion for archival research? Imagine the potential audience for Finding Aids: What I Learned in the Archives about Life, Love and Happiness. Are you a Renaissance scholar? A book titled Renaissance Self-Fashioning in Ten Easy Steps could make the New York Times bestseller list. You get the picture. The field is wide open, the possibilities are limitless, and I say it’s time we get out there and circulate.

*Robertson's histories brought him fame and fortune. For the copyright to his History of Charles V (1769), he received from his publisher the unprecedented sum of £4000. I believe that's well over £200,000 in today's currency (no doubt Brad DeLong could supply a more accurate figure.)

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at November 19, 2003 11:42 AM

This idea has some merit. Could I add some more marketing ideas?

- video games. X-Box versions of great debates and speeches in American history based on all of those martial arts fighting games. Depending on the oratory, opponents may bleed or even have their heads explode (think exciting visuals here). For example, have McKinley and Bryant face off. If Bryant wins, he actually crucifies his Republican challenger on a real golden cross. One may have to take some liberties with the evidence, or even create entirely imaginary scenarios, in the interest of entertainment. We need to be open to that challenge.

If someone wants to cross the Atari stand-by "Combat" with a social and cultural history of colonization in francophone Central Africa, then they should drop me a line.

- painters caps and tote bags. Don't they work well for NPR and public television stations?

Posted by: better left nameless at November 19, 2003 04:07 PM

Household tips. "Are a lot of severed heads cluttering up the house? Stack them in pyramids like the Mongols!"

Actually, my line of study might be profitable sometime because of reenactment societies and other military buffs.

Posted by: zizka at November 19, 2003 09:06 PM

What really needs to happen is the professional historians need to take back the writing of history from hack journalists. I'm sick of seeing history books selling well and then noticing that they are written by a journalist who gets everything wrong. We can write well researched, correct, intellectually stimulating and popular history if we want. Why don't we? The AHA needs to get a book series going, something like a book or two a year and vigourously (sp?) promote the damn thing and make sure it's readable. This will get people interested in history again. We also need to start getting on TV shows like Hardball, O'reilly, etc. They also bring up these asinine historical comparisons (Saddam/Stalin, Iraq/Post WWII Europe). We need to be on those shows dammit, not some ahistorical twit of a senator commenting on how the situations are so similar and we can learn so much from history. We can learn from history, but these shows always get everything wrong. Basically, we need to come out of Ivory Towers and f-ck sh-t up!

Posted by: Chris Dub at November 20, 2003 01:55 AM

"We can write well researched, correct, intellectually stimulating and popular history if we want. Why don't we?"

Perhaps historians don't want to? Or perhaps the norms and expectations of academic history make it difficult to cross over?

Every few years, it seems, someone makes a plea for a "revival of narrative." Most recently, e.g., Simon Schama, who does write intellectually stimulating popular history. But lots of historians snark at Schama for publishing outside his own specialization.

While this entry is obviously tongue in cheek, I do think more historians should try to reach broader audiences outside the academy. I think the book series is a good idea. I'd also like to see more magazines like the UK's History Today.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 20, 2003 09:09 AM

you think this is tongue in cheek? when i am driving around in a souped-up Delorean thanks to the profits flooding in from the Cliometrics (TM) playstation game and my historically-themed tote bags, then i'll laugh at all of the people who doubted these ways of popularizing history.

africanists like myself have been under fire for not producing works for general audiences, and i think the critics have a very good point. when works do get attention, like "King Leopold's Ghost" did recently, it is often journalists who use historical works as references who reach a large audience. will people be tenured for putting out popular works, though? at some places, certainly, but not all.

Posted by: better left nameless at November 20, 2003 11:18 AM

Incidentally, joking aside, I did get a book contract for a book on Genghis Khan. It's clear that I'm supposed to write for the well-informed general reader and not write (for example) ten pages on the provenance, textual problems, and dating of the sources. I'm a bit apprehensive as to how it will be treated by the best men in the field, all of whom know more than I do, probably none of whom is willing to write such a book, and some of whom have the normal PhD resentments.

My estimate is that if the book sells well, I'l net $20-40,000 over the course of 3-4 years, after spending about a year fulltime writing. That's the high end. So writing popular books is not going to solve all of the profession's problems.

Posted by: zizka at November 20, 2003 12:44 PM

Congrats on the book contract!

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 20, 2003 01:01 PM

Yes, congratulations, that's great news.

And let me offer you some advice. Three words should guide your writing: "Genghis Khan" and "screenplay."

Posted by: ogged at November 20, 2003 01:40 PM

There are two novelized versions of Genghis Khan's work out, one by a Lister and one by the pulp novelist Taylor Caldwell. John Wayne also played Genghis Khan in a movie I haven't seen.

How about:

"As he watched his men stacking the enemy heads, Genghis felt strangely empty. And he knew that, beautiful though they were, his 800 wives would not be able to lift his spirits. Somehow, he needed more than this".

In the biz, BTW, you don't stress the bloodiness of the conquests.

Posted by: zizka at November 20, 2003 04:19 PM

"As he watched his men stacking the enemy heads, Genghis felt strangely empty. And he knew that, beautiful though they were, his 800 wives would not be able to lift his spirits. Somehow, he needed more than this".

Cue to beautiful woman with windswept hair, riding a horse (Lucy Liu? Catherine Zeta-Jones?). He conquered the lands of China. Will she conquer his heart?

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 20, 2003 06:57 PM

"All his life he'd been a good boy -- murdering, plundering, and raping as his parents expected. But in the process he had forgotten about his own needs. You can't live your life for others, he said to himself. What is "success", after all, really?

Suddenly [Catherine Zeta-Jones] swept past on her fine black stallion. 'I must have her" he said to himself, giving orders to have her husband killed. He had always been a sucker for puffy-faced women, of whom he had married over a hundred."

Posted by: zizka at November 20, 2003 09:22 PM

Zizka, you're the campiest straight middle-aged white dude ever.

Posted by: ogged at November 20, 2003 09:46 PM

Based on DeLong's and my calculations, I would say that 4000 pounds at the end of the 18th century should be taken as being worth between $250,000 and $400,000. Your figure is in that range.

On to history. Before I quit graduate school I reread Herodotus. I had spent a couple of years reading monographs and reviews so dull that they made me weep. Herodotus knew that he was writing a STORY and that it had to be interesting as such.

And that is the guts of the problem. The academic social science approach to history is absolutley guaranteed to produce unreadable glub.

History should be fun and interesting. History is, after all, about life. But the academic program is to encrust it with so much methodology and so many footnotes and qualifications that life is smothered.

Zizka, you have a chance. I hope you are very sucessful in your endeavor. The Great Kahn was one of history great figures and a facinating story in his own right. Orphaned, his tribe destroyed, he puts together a great army and conquers the greatest nation in the world. How about "The Leadership Secrets of Genghis Kahn" as a working title?

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at November 20, 2003 10:39 PM


As long as this thread is all about you, I have a question. On your site, you spell Genghis "Chinggis." Nifty, because in Farsi, it's pronounced as something like "Changeez," which is great, because "chang" means "claw." Thoughts?

Posted by: ogged at November 20, 2003 10:45 PM

Chinggis is the correct Mongol. Genghis is mediated by some other language, possible medieval Farsi but maybe Armenian, Latin, Turkish, etc. (There's an answer but I can't remember.) Incidentally, his given name, "Temujin" means "Smith" and he had a Christian decendant named "George." No joke.

Robert, enough is known about Chinggis Qan that such a book could be written. Short answer: Machiavelli could have taught him nothing, and his army was organized on rational, non-traditional, non-kinship lines. He killed all his enemies and all of his inconvenient friends.

I read Herodotus in HS and then as a freshman in college. My fellow students were bored -- they wanted to read Herman Hesse or Tolkein. SOme of the best anecdotes in the world, but they didn't care. "Gyges and his wife" was hilarious.

Posted by: zizka at November 21, 2003 12:25 AM

Whooooo baked his loaves in a cold oven?

I want to read the stirring, possibly revisionist history of Chinggis' mother, who IIRC had to have been one smart tough cookie.

Posted by: clew at November 21, 2003 12:36 AM

"History should be fun and interesting. History is, after all, about life. But the academic program is to encrust it with so much methodology and so many footnotes and qualifications that life is smothered."

I agree, and I think there should be more history written with a broader audience in mind.

On the other hand: there's a lot of careful, detailed, specialized, heavily footnoted work behind the nifty little tools at the Current Value of Old Money website. The tools are fun to use, but the research behind them isn't: ie, that work probably wouldn't meet most people's definition of interesting and engaging. But without the research that would strike most people as deadly dull (detailed analyses of price and wage series, etc), you don't get the nifty little tools.

Of course, someone could take that research and write a lively, engaging work on changes in standard of living over the centuries. But that person would have to rely on highly specialized research, translated and somewhat simplified for a non-specialist audience.

All of which is to say: I agree there should be more narrative, but I also believe the more "social scientific" approaches provide empirical grounding (on demographics, economics, and so on) that we would otherwise lack.

Posted by: Invisible Adjunct at November 21, 2003 09:42 AM

From a narrative point of view, literally a thousand pages of research can be summed up sometimes in one line.

Sample: "The Hans might have been distantly descended from the Hsiung-nu, though it probably will never be possible to be sure. Their language is likewise unknown (as is the language of the Hsiung-nu); if it was not some form of Turkish, it was probably a member of the very loosely-defined and almost extinct "paleo-Siberian" family."

Di Cosmo gave that eight pages. A thorough treatment of the subject would take several hundred pages, and certainly over a thousand pages has been written on it.

Posted by: zizka at November 21, 2003 02:05 PM