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.