He Knows Not What He Speaks Of or Why Civil War Historians Should Blog (Part 2)

On Friday I shared some thoughts  in connection with a paper that I will be presenting on Civil War blogging at the upcoming meeting of the SCWH in New Orleans.  Brooks Simpson’s latest post has given me a bit more to chew on in connection with this paper.  His post is a brief response to Michael Aubrecht who recently offered some revealing commentary concerning Brooks’s decision to share his OAH comments as a 3-part post.    While Aubrecht hopes not to be misunderstood, Brooks rightfully pins this as a first-rate example of the anti-intellectualism that pervades sections of the Civil War community.  I quote at length as this blogger has a tendency to take posts down after being challenged:

Many of these conferences and seminars can sometimes come off as being a bit elitist and arrogant. Sometimes people who participate in these events echo that sentiment in their comments. (Ironically, most of the best rangers, guides, speakers, authors, filmmakers, re-enactors, and all around buffs that I know are anything but ‘academics’ and have zero pedigrees to boot.)

I guess my confusion lies in why do these history teachers feel the need to hold these conventions and sit around discussing the state of anything? What has changed so drastically in the last 140+ years in the presentation of the War Between the States? And what exactly defines scholarship? To me it represents an expertise that is earned by the study and examination of a subject. So, do you have to be an academic to accomplish this? Is there any more (or less) expertise sitting at a roundtable in a symposium, or around a campfire at a re-enactment?

Perhaps questioning and challenging everything that has come before them gives this generation of professors the feeling that they too are contributing something to the legacy of the subject matter. Still, other teachers don’t do this. I’m not aware of any Science or English instructors holding conferences to discuss the state of their subjects.

I guess my issue is that they always appear so negative to me, preaching the idea that everyone else is ignorant and wrong. I am also bothered by the tendency they have to try and tear people down. These are the people that say things like "Yeah Robert E. Lee was great, but not nearly as great as you think and here are the reasons why." What real purpose does that serve?

Notice that there is not one word in response to Brooks’s post.  Brooks took the initiative to share his remarks in hopes of generating a discussion or thought in the reader and all that Aubrecht can do is go off on an utterly incoherent rant.  Has he ever been to an academic conference?  Does he have any basis for making any kind of judgment at all about what takes place or is discussed?  Is he aware that a significant percentage of OAH members are high school teachers who are looking to advance their knowledge of history or that you can almost always find an NPS historian in the audience or presenting a paper?  Do we really have to explain how the study of the Civil War has changed since 1865?   This is a truly remarkable statement.  Is he not aware that every intellectual discipline holds conventions and conferences along the lines of the OAH and AHA?  I don’t know whether to be disgusted or embarrassed for this guy.  Perhaps both.

In the end, however, Aubrecht’s post is very useful.  Again, I find it telling that his first reaction is not to respond to Brooks’s thought-provoking post, but to latch onto the fact that the content was presented at an academic conference.  Does Aubrecht have any thoughts at all about Brooks’s post?  Why not take the time to think about it and offer a constructive response?  That last highlighted passage above sums it up nicely, which is the perception that analysis is to be understood as "negative", "preaching", and meant to point out the mistakes of others.    At its worst, the passage could be understood as implying that there should be no questioning or criticism whatsoever in the world of Civil War studies. 

What is unfortunate is that it seems that most of the comments in his post are a function of a lack of understanding of what goes into historical scholarship.  The implicit assumption is that all historical writing is story-telling rather than analysis; the writer collects a bunch of sources and than fashions a story out of it.  As we all know there are plenty of deeply-ingrained stories that are held as sacred by many.  Rather than see historical scholarship as trying to further our understanding many cannot but interpret it as a personal attack and this is unfortunate.  Aubrecht is right about one thing and that is there is a gulf between academic historians and sections of the general public.  But how does this post move towards any type of understanding as opposed to driving a wedge between the two?  Not only does his post accomplish this latter goal, but it does so in the worst way possible through hyperbole and utter ignorance.

I like to think that what Brooks Simpson, Ethan Rafuse, and Mark Grimsley have done with Civil Warriors is try to make their world a bit more transparent for those of us who do not operate in the academic community.  I’ve learned a great deal from all three and I appreciate the way they’ve forced me to think about various aspects of American history.  In the end, the goal must be to understand more and to understand better.

9 thoughts on “He Knows Not What He Speaks Of or Why Civil War Historians Should Blog (Part 2)

  1. Michael Aubrecht

    [Note to Reader: Since this post references a blogger by name that was banned from commenting on this site a few months back I am making an exception.]

    Kevin, I have responded over on Brook’s post and I have linked to both of you on mine. I think you are missing the point here. You actually agreed with the foundation of my post when you said, “Aubrecht is right about one thing and that is there is a gulf between academic historians and sections of the general public.” That’s the only point I was trying to make.

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  2. Kevin Levin

    Anyone who gives your post a thorough reading must conclude that this was about more than simply pointing to the divide between academic historians and the general public. It seems to me there are ways to do this that do not involve making absurd claims as you do over and over. I normally don’t care what you have to say about the issues you touch on, but when it goes as far over the edge as it did you are begging for a response. In fact, I am willing to wager that not only did you expect a response, but you were looking forward to it or attempting to provoke one.

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  3. Brooks Simpson

    As I read all the posts associated with this, including new material posted at Pinstripe Press Blog, I conclude that Mr. Aubrecht’s real target is Kevin Levin.

    See, Kevin, you didn’t need no stinkin’ PhD!

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  4. Kevin Levin

    Brooks, — I didn’t want to point that out for fear that I would labeled as some kind of nut. After I clicked the link from your blog to Aubrecht I spent time reading older posts from the past few weeks and it was pretty obvious to me that without citing me specifically that much of what he wrote was a response to my own postings. How disturbing is that?

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  5. Paul Taylor

    Kevin,

    You state that Mr. Aubrecht’s comments are “a first-rate example of the anti-intellectualism that pervades sections of the Civil War community.” In your opinion, does the reverse also occasionally hold true? Have you ever seen or heard condescension within the academic community toward the non-professional historian?

    Let me say that as an “amateur historian,” I hold no anti-intellectual feelings toward the professional historian and have never received anything other than the most cordial support and encouragement from the professionals I have worked with.

    Paul

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  6. Kevin Levin

    Paul, — Of course I’ve heard of condescending remarks made in the direction of amateur historians. Hell, I myself have been the target of certain individuals within the academy over issues such as blogging and teaching. There is misunderstanding on all sides, but the more interesting question is how we can bridge those divides and I felt compelled to point out that this is not the way to do it.

    I am not surprised to hear that you have not experienced such language, but I assume that they are few and far between.

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  7. Elisabeth Payne Rosen

    Hmmm. I am new to blogs. I guess this is what happens a lot.

    It seems to me, coming to the argument late, that Mr. Aubrecht has distinctly stepped on Mr. Levin’s corns. Whether he intended that-and only that–I do not know, but if he wanted it to get a rise, it did. It is hard to reply to someone who has attacked your P.O.V without defensiveness; so far, the only person I remember who was really good at it was the late, unlamented Wm. F. Buckley.

    I don’t know Mr. Aubrecht, and I’ve only started reading Kevin’s blog, but I’d say there’s some truth on both sides. As a novelist with a (serious) historical novel coming out at the end of May (HALLAM’S WAR, http://www.unbridledbooks.com), I am surprised at the gulf that does seem to lie between academic historians of the war and reenactors, just to take one example. I could not have written my book without the former (although, pace Dimitri Rotov, they included their share of Bicentennial tomes) and found my sole contact with the latter, during a tour of the Fredericksburg battlefield, to be equally valuable in the sense of people actually acting out their passion for history with their bodies. Surely it isn’t an either/or situation? Check out Jill Lepore’s long article in the March 24 New Yorker on “Fake memoirs, factual fictions, and the history of history.” And incidentally, this tension doesn’t exist only in the world of Civil War history. Check out my blog at civilwardeacon.blogspot.com, only give me about 24 hours first, because there’s practically nothing on it yet. I’ll try to post the LePore article, or the good bits.

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  8. Kevin Levin

    I think we should be very careful in assuming such a wide gulf between academic historians and reenactors. Perhaps couching the difference in terms of a “gulf” is misleading; rather, they have very different agendas or interests. By the way the Lepore article is incredibly thought provoking. As for MA’s post let’s just say he spoke out on a subject that he knows nothing about and I decided to call him on it.

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  9. paul

    I have been reading over here for a couple of months and it’s pretty interesting, both on the named subject and the side issues, like this one. I’m not sure if I can believe someone wrote the stuff excerpted above and expects to be taken seriously. The whole tone is so whiney.

    “Many of these conferences and seminars can sometimes come off as being a bit elitist and arrogant” which I read as “people know more than me and that hurts my feelings.”

    Does he really think that maybe examining source materials or other records, some of which may have been previously unavailable, is somehow less rigorous that chewing the fat with lot of other people wearing costumes around a campfire?

    I have never understood war re-enactors anyway, but to equate the post-battle bull sessions to a conference with peer-reviewed papers written by people for whom this is not a hobby is ignorant.

    As you point out, the idea that other disciplines don’t have conferences would be funny if it weren’t so dumb. The whole piece, or at least the excerpts, is just one long gripe against book learnin’.

    Reply

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