February 23, 2004

"The Juggernaut of Academic History"

What did Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle have in common?

None of them had a Ph.D. in History, and all of them are cited by Simon Schama in his recent call for a revival of the "golden age" of history:

Simon Schama, one of Britain's best-known historians, has accused fellow academics of making the subject too dull.

Professor Schama is calling for a return to a 'golden age' of historians of the calibre of Gibbon, Macaulay and Carlyle. He says modern-day historians - with a few notable exceptions - have lost the ability to inspire the public with tales of the past in the same way as their predecessors (Jonathan Thompson, "History just isn't what it used to be: Schama slams academic historians")

Timothy Burke approves, but adds an important qualification:

The only caveat I have is that the existence of a broadly communicative, publically engaged rhetoric of history is dependent upon the existence of a body of much more meticulous scholarship. Schama couldn't have written Citizens if there hadn't been a large historiography to write about, and the same goes for any of the successful public-sphere historians of recent years.

Good point. There may not be a lot of story to be pulled out of detailed quantitative analyses of parish registers and village rent rolls. But without that detailed analysis, we know appreciably less about demographic trends, property relations, standards of living, and so on. Some of this can of course be rendered into lively narrative prose, but not unless and until someone has already done that detailed and meticulous research. Burke's post is well worth reading, and especially for his suggestion that the overemphasis on a narrower "professionalized craft" at the expense of broader "communicative ambitions" is not the "inevitable consequence of graduate training."


For Kieran Healy, Schama's call for a return to the golden age of history "mostly seems like promotional fluff for his new TV series" and Timothy Burke's caveat must be seen as "more than a caveat:"

Schamaís Great Historians fused authoritative judgment, great range and vivid prose and brought the result to large audiences, helping to define the practice of history as they went. What fun it must have been. He wants those things, too. Yet although he speaks to an audience bigger than any of his heroes, Schama must know he canít occupy that niche, because it no longer exists. The vast differentiation of the academic division of labor over the past century and a half destroyed it.

Is Schama expressing the kind of "anachronistic wishfulness that historians teach us to avoid"? Perhaps.

Certainly, there can be no return to a golden age. Today's historian can no more write like Macaulay than today's novelist can write like Jane Austen. Any attempt to write like Macaulay would probably succeed about as well as the various prequels and sequels to Pride and Prejudice have succeeded, which is to say, would probably result in embarrassing failure.

But while I basically agree with Healy on the pastness of the historiographical past, I don't share the telos of progress that seems to underlie his comment. It's not that I don't believe that the past hundred and fifty years have seen enormous progress in the accumulation of historical knowledge, the refinement of research methodologies, and so on. I do believe that there has been such progress (and one reason why today's historian could not write like Macaulay is that the historian would have to pretend to be innocent of this historical knowledge, which would already be indulging in a kind of ersatz Macaulay fakery).

Healy writes that "whereas the mills of academic specialization can grind exceeding small, we canít all have our own BBC miniseries." While the latter is indisputably true, I think the former open to question. It's just not a given to me that the current division of labor is sustainable. It's possible, of course, and maybe even probable, that the wheels can continue to grind. On the other hand, it's also possible that academic history will come to be dismissed as a kind of scholasticism, or perhaps consigned to an increasingly narrow and rarefied space (e.g., elite research universities) as a kind of cultural luxury item. When I read that the history now accounts for only 2 percent of all BAs (a dramatic decline in both relative and absolute terms since 1970), and when I think of the funding cuts that the history mill has suffered over the past decade, I do have to wonder. And when Timothy Burke warns that the monograph does have value and insists that "one of the functions of academic research institutions should be to subsidize the work that does not and cannot seek a public audience," I think he too recognizes the possibility that such work might not be subsidized, or at least not subsidized at the current rate.

Posted by Invisible Adjunct at February 23, 2004 05:56 PM

Can we can expand this post to include other disciplines? Certainly my fellow political scientists could benefit from writing without dense literature reviews and convoluted regression analysis. Their analysis should occasionally rise above the impact of term limits in KY from 1974 to 1978.

Posted by: Laura at February 23, 2004 09:42 PM

Well, I hope this does not make me look like a simpleton, but I agree with both Schama and Burke. What kind of "big history", which we all seem to want, would be considered acceptable in an academic setting?

Posted by: DM at February 23, 2004 11:59 PM

This isnt just history. In almost all fields, the average person wont understand much of academic research.(then again, I doubt many care.) A price to pay for progress.

Actually, I wonder why tenured historians dont try their hand at writing stuff for the general public. They already have tenure, no pressing need to write in academic journals. Probably pays a whole lot better than academic writting anyway. They have the resources and knowledge to write, with a stable day job that pays the bills. They probably have better contacts than most to publishing houses. Academics are already engaged in research on a regular basis, so its not like a departure from what they do anyway. Above all, they have instant credibility in the eyes of the general public.

Tenured historians in short should be churning them books out and raking in big bucks ;)
So why dont they?

Posted by: Passing_through at February 24, 2004 01:51 AM

If it were easy to write big books, everyone would do it. Monographs are hard enough: writing a book with broad claims that is also highly readable and aims for the public sphere is tricky. But beyond that, there's also not a lot of support for even wanting to do it, let alone trying to. Very few of the grants that support sabbaticals will support that kind of work; colleagues will not think well of you if you have those ambitions.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 24, 2004 07:37 AM

Passing Through: I'd venture that none but the rarest academic knows how to write "history" that the general public wants to read (much less buy).

So: they don't because they can't.

Posted by: P at February 24, 2004 07:41 AM

I think many people underestimate how well academic historians write when they choose to do so. In my field of Western History, Bill Cronon, Richard White, and Patty Limerick have all written books that read easily and have sold reasonably well (although not enough to quit teaching). And that is just a few of the people, it doesn't count the prof who has a side career as a mystery writer. And what are Jim McPhereson, Joseph Ellis, and Robert Caro, chopped liver? There are a couple of reasons why academics do not write more popular history. 1. Unless it is a biography or has to do with a war - especially the Civil War - major presses generally won't touch it. 2. The financial recompense is not that lucrative. 3. Historians do a lot of this synthetic writing for their lectures, they do not necessarily want to do it for their books. and 4. Most historians like archival research, just as an archeologist can't wait to get back into the field again, most historians can't wait to get back to the archives, ergo, why write a big synthetic book.

Incidentally, one of things Schama wanted to get rid of was footnotes, that would have made the Arming America brouhaha that much more fun, and yes that book sold quite well.

Posted by: David Salmanson at February 24, 2004 10:15 AM

"Very few of the grants that support sabbaticals will support that kind of work"
Not really necessary. Beginning writers work day jobs to support themselves while they write. Tenured faculty dont need to. They already have one that doesnt take too much time. (if one is willing to do the absolute minimum this definitely holds)

"colleagues will not think well of you if you have those ambitions."
Again, I mentioned tenured faculty. Doesnt really matter if nobody thinks well of you does it? Multiple reasons already exist for others not to think well of you.

"Monographs are hard enough: writing a book ... is tricky."
True. Writing a book for the general public isnt a cakewalk. But think about it this way Timothy. Writing requires research for material to write about and knowing how to write in a style suited for the intended reader. Comparatively speaking, most professors probably have an edge about the research bit. As for the writing part, historians are one of the few disciplines that expect books. (almost none of the science/engineering/social science requires or even expects a book.) Compared to other academics, they already have an edge there. Besides,the monographs historians write are closer to book-form than what journalists or any other profession will ever write. As far as an advantage goes, historians(perhaps the humanities in general) are oodles ahead of anybody else.

Posted by: Passing_through at February 24, 2004 10:22 AM

Is there any importance to this discussion that Schama is neither a PhD nor a trained historian (as opposed to an art historian -- but I'm sure somewhere here will correct me with accurate bio-details, if they matter)?

Posted by: P at February 24, 2004 11:02 AM

Very few historians will be able to write best-sellers; the math just doesn't work out even if the writing skills were there. But I think there *is* a market for serious and scholarly work among elements of the public--they may sell 10,000 copies instead of 10,000,000, but that doesn't mean that the effort isn't worthwhile.

For example, I recently read a history of feudalism by the French social and medieval historian Marc Bloch..it wasn't "popularized" in style but I still found it quite readable (even after being translated from French to English, which rarely helps). Surely it is better to produce such works in a form which is available to interested nonspecialists rather than to restrict them to an audience of specialists. (And I acknowledge that behind the Bloch book is probably a whole array of monographs that will never be seen outside academia. But, to use a manufacturing analogy, perhaps these can be thought of as "parts" and "subassemblies" for a book which is an "end product." Wouldn't it be more satisfying to make parts and subassemblies that you are someday going to assemble into an end product, rather than to just make them in the hope that someday someone else will grab a few of them and put them together into something?)

Posted by: David Foster at February 24, 2004 11:07 AM

Regarding P's question concerning Schama's lack of a Ph.D...once upon a time, a doctorate wasn't necessary to get an Oxbridge fellowship. Indeed, if you were clever, you went straight to that (think Sir Richard Southern, for example) after undergrad and writing a book or highly-regarded article or two. Doctorates were thought to be what one did if one was second-rate. That began to change in the 50s and 60s I believe. There are still a few dons titled 'Mister' about Oxford, including one highly-regarded historian of Anglo-Saxon law.

Posted by: BWH at February 24, 2004 11:53 AM

BWH -- Thanks for your insights on Oxbridge promotions-of-yore.

I was thinking, rather, that his lack of a PhD, and especially one in History, might be of great advantage in approaching a non-academic readership.

Do I remember correctly seeing chatter here (or at Tim Burke's site) about PhD training as narrowing the writing skills (and love for the intellectual process therefore) of students into a deformed spectacle of irrelevance?

Posted by: P at February 24, 2004 12:04 PM

I don't mean to always be the one offering the cynic's point of view, but could it be that senior faculty simply do not have any interest in writing the kinds of books being discussed here?

Consider that as one moves into their late 40's and 50's, and after having already fulfilled the writing requirements for tenure, a very different set of exigencies begin to define and determine the course of their lives. Job security is intact, tenure has been achieved, a roster of courses has been established within the curriculum, and administrative roles have been defined, and one's atention now turns to personal and family matters. Where is the incentive to write the kinds of works that you are proposing? Why bother? if it's for the sake of the "good of the profession," well, we've seen what these people do for the "good of the profession." And if it's for the sake of ego, I think Timothy Burke's remarks above make clear that ego is better served by continuing to write in the modes approved by the conventions and precedents of the profession. Breaking ranks and writing for the "general public" will only garner scorn.

In the mean time, though, there are classes to teach, committees to serve upon, kids to get off to college, and probably a portfolio to manage and a Summer house to tend to.

Posted by: Chris at February 24, 2004 01:17 PM

Check the most recent issue of hte AHA's Perspectives.

When polling those portfolio elements that would help or hurt a tenure candidate's chances for promotion, the "trade book" came in a close-second in the "hurt most" judgement.

Posted by: P at February 24, 2004 01:45 PM

I think that's key, Chris. To have the ambition is actually not an ego-booster but an ego-reducer, because you'll get no validation from within your institutional life for having it. You'll only get validated if you succeed in writing a big book and climbing into the public sphere. Otherwise, it'll just be--as a colleague charmingly called my blogging to my face--"slumming".

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 24, 2004 01:46 PM

In the last millennieum, before I quit graduate school in history, I reread Herodotus. It reminded my of why I loved history and why I hated graduate school and did not want to go on. I loved to read history, I loved to think about the varities of human action and the way men had responded to the challenges they had faced. I hated reading monographs the way I hated eating baked liver, and regarded the thought of writing them with detestation.

I think that the failure of the research university model in the field of history is just a specific example of its general faliure in the humanities. (Thank god, no one expects english professors to turn out novels). There is no real reason why academic history faculty are required to write these things. No one reads them. They are not the bricks in some theoretical edifice. History is far to vast. There is a brick here and a brick there. If I am a careful scholar, I keep mine a good distance from everyone else's. I can then be the world's leading authority in the early medieval period in lower slobovia and none of you will be any the wiser.

In keeping with my overall skepticism about the research model and tenure, I have no huge global recomendation. I think that the writing of history should be left to those who want to write and that there is no market failure that would compel any governmental or academic subsidy to historical writing anymore than porn or detective stories.

Would we get Gibbon, Macaulay or Carlyle. probably not. We are degraded men, who live in a degraded age. Gibbon's book was only the third most important writing published in 1776. We will get Janet Jackson or her right boob or her nipple ring. Ex nihil, nihil fit. It will be a very long time before we can produce a Gibbon, who can write something as brilliant as he did, or an audience that can appreciate it. Not to worry though, thirty billion years till the lights get turned out.

Posted by: Robert Schwartz at February 24, 2004 11:33 PM

I agree with DM. I have no credentials as a historian whatsoever, but a fascination with history which began as a six-year-old by receiving second-hand from my uncle the 16-volume Golden Book Encyclopedia of American History, and the Encyclopedia Americana. It was nurtured by a closet of books belonging to my father, who graduated summa cum laude in history from Rutgers in 1970, and sustained by excellent public-school history teachers. I was awarded the DAR "Excellence in History" medal as a 13-year-old. Even so I was strongly discouraged from pursuing a liberal arts education, and so went onto the applied sciences, and ultimately Information Technology. Despite my lack of academic training in the field, my interest in history as an adult remains because of the proliferation of work like Schama's.

My point is that history is not only about the research, but the narrative. History needs to be expressed in a way so that those who are exposed to it can make history in their own lives. Narrative alone cannot contain all the facts of history, but research alone does not express the essence of history. The significance of history lies in the quality of that combination.

Posted by: beastofsound at February 25, 2004 01:14 PM

Somewhat related to this, have any of you read The Cartoon History of the Universe, by Larry Gonick? There are three books out... the first one was rather thin and covered lots of pre-history, but the other two are rather juicy, from this non-historian's point of view. It's in no way comprehensive, but Gonick does hit on broad themes and provides a good bibliography for non-experts.

I wondered what credentialed historians thought of those books.

Posted by: meep at February 26, 2004 03:34 PM

I have a very high opinion of volumes 2 and 3--I think they're not just good histories, but actually make a good theoretical argument for narrative history at a global level (something that's not common at all theoretically in world history) and even have a rather distinctive interpretation of world history that's fairly consistent throughout both volumes.

Posted by: Timothy Burke at February 26, 2004 07:57 PM

Of course, it couls also be that Schama is able to do the kind of work he does precisely because he has not specialized to the extent that is expected if one wants a job in today's market. Gibbon, Macaulay, and Carlyle were all gentlemen scholars, IIRC. They had the luxury of writing narrative and didn't have to worry about sales or tenure.
There's plenty of popular history out there -- and academics do write it -- Judith Herrin, for example, did a recent article for History Today on Byzantium. There are also plenty of academics who write well. What I see as a stumbling block is the necessity of documentation. Historians are trained to document their sources. A book without notes is merely a synthesis of readily accessible facts. Most folks who read popular history want broad narrative mixed with obscure detail -- they want Barbara Tuchman. Sorry, but I see this all the time -- especially with film. People watch films that are purported to be historically accurate (think gladiator or any mel Gibson historical film) and feel like they're getting a good deal -- history lite. When it turns out that the films aren't as accurate as they are supposed to be, the tue changes to -- "hey, but they convey a true sense of the time -- not everybody wants to be an expert!"

Me, I think that it's not a lack of popular historical narrative -- it's bad history teaching in school. I think students who are introduced to history from a "how to be a historian" standpoint generally are better at it, more critical thinkers, and enjoy history more. I certainly know that most of my students prefer learning from primary sources, even though it's harder work. Unfortunately, that's not how most people are taught history, hence two ideas of what history is supposed to be.

Posted by: Another Damned Medievalist at February 26, 2004 08:42 PM

Well if you never want a pay raise or promotion then you don't need to worry about anything anyone else thinks after getting tenure.... You should see what happened to that Deming guy at Oklahoma who upset his colleagues.... That's the extreme.

Writing a popular book would count towards "service". But you'd need to continue to contribute in the other areas at any private research university.

Posted by: moom at February 27, 2004 08:07 PM

In response to ADM,
Other than to note that outside of his publication, Schama definitely has a job regardless of specialization, it is equally important to realize that they all serve a purpose. Were it not for those incredibly dull histories, the ones that Schama produces are not entirely possible. As a culture historian, Schama does not need to specialize, there are plenty of specialized folk out there and there is a clear need for a codification and synthesis of the disparate ideas that are out there. While I am definitely not an enemy of microhistoria, the broad picture is needed to put all of the microhistories in order and allow the public to select the micros they wish to question. It is to the public that all work is designed, even if they never see it, for history is not for the historians, they merely serve the public. And if they are too snobby to serve, then let them be damned to dust-shouldered obscurity in their libraried cave of egoism.

Posted by: Schamite at March 31, 2004 11:18 AM