Suspicious of Academics?

I first started reading Civil War history back in 1995 while an employee at a fairly large Borders Books and Music in Rockville, Maryland just outside of Washington, D.C.  My responsibilities included maintaining the Civil War section and I did so with a great deal of satisfaction.  In addition to reading a great deal, I maintained a folder, which included recent book reviews and led a very successful Civil War reading group that met monthly.  From the beginning my specific interests extended beyond the battlefield so most of the books I read were written by college professors and published by university presses.  I never gave much thought to the fact that it was history professors that were providing me with my education in American history.  I placed and continue to place a certain value on advanced degrees without allowing it cloud my responsibilities as a critical reader.  My approach to each book was pretty much the same.  I read carefully and kept a careful eye on following the author's argument and the evidence used to support it.  The reading group also approached assigned readings with the same goal.  On occasion I even invited local authors to join us in our discussions.  Two that stand out include Craig Symonds and Kevin C. Ruffner.  Authors quickly understood that our sessions were not simply an opportunity to sell a book and tell little stories that had been collected during the course of their research.  We had read their books and were ready to challenge their claims as part of our responsibility as critical readers.  I still remember walking Dr. Ruffner out the door after his presentation; let's just say he was pleasantly surprised and appreciative.

These personal anecdotes are meant to raise the apparent distrust and suspicion that certain circles within the Civil War community have for academics.  I've only become aware of it since I started blogging back in 2005.  The roots of this are far too complex for a blog post, but I did want to comment briefly on it, if only to spark a discussion.  Part of it can be explained as one aspect of the broader culture wars.  Academic historians tend to be perceived as part of a liberal elite who are at war with all things traditional in the name of change and progress.  Within the context of the Civil War the assumption seems to be that academic historians are engaged in revisionism with the intent to knock down the interpretations and stories that continue to exercise a strong emotional hold on a large segment of the population.  More to the point, the work of academics tends to be considered on political grounds as if their research were meant as commentary on current cultural and moral questions rather than as an honest attempt at investigating the past.  No doubt, certain historians such as Eric Foner and Howard Zinn have contributed to this perception, but it has also been fueled by others in the media who go out of their way to make the broadest generalizations about the academic community without any attempt at distinguishing an individual's moral/political view from their scholarship.  

One of the best examples of this took place on my blog a few months back.  Following a comment on Lost Cause-inspired religious studies of the Civil War I provided a list of recent academic studies on religion and the Civil War that I thought should be read.  One of my regular readers attempted to make the argument that these books should not be taken seriously since university presses only publish the work of secular scholars.   It would be easy to dismiss such a comment as simply uninformed or even stemming from a bit of paranoia, but this is standard discourse in certain circles.  Academic historians are partly to blame for the tendency on the part of some to reduce historical argument to cultural expression.  They have failed to sufficiently explain themselves and the historical process to the general public. 

Nowhere in the historical field is there a closer connection between academics and general readers, and even here they have not done enough to counter claims that their work is an attack on tradition.  It leads to the mistaken assumption that all academic historians are of a certain political and religious persuasion and the fallacy that their personal background necessarily influences every aspect of their scholarship.  It doesn't stop here.  How many times have we heard that these attacks against tradition come from scholars outside of the "Old South?" as if there is any connection at all to be made between interpretation and geography.

What we need from academic historians is more attention to explaining what it is that they do.  I suspect that much of this can be explained with a simple distinction between the respective goals of narrative and interpretive history.  The former tends to see story telling, perhaps with the goal of empathetic identification or civic instruction, as the primary focus.  For academic historians the goal is interpretation, not with the intent to attack or destroy what is taken to be sacred by some, but to better understand the available evidence.  Of course, these two categories overlap, but the distinction is instructive nonetheless.   I assume that there is something "liberal" about the goals of interpretive/analytical history since the intent is to build on or revise what came before, but this should not cause us to open the floodgates of politics and culture as the lens through which the products of such an approach are judged.

For now, may I suggest that we put the paranoid style on ice for awhile.  Engage the work of historians on an individual basis and do so by approaching it with a critical eye.  If we keep the discussion on that level we are more likely going to be able to bring about a more honest and instructive dialog and one that will hopefully tell us something about the past rather than ourselves.

17 thoughts on “Suspicious of Academics?

  1. Larry Cebula

    A thoughtful post, Kevin.

    A similar syndrome exists in western history, another field where there is substantial public interest, reenactments, and numerous amateur “history buff” organizations. In the case of western history academics and amateurs generally got along quite well until the “New Western History” movement of the 1980s led scholars to a more critical narrative of westward expansion, one that the public has found less palatable than the ancient Turnerian thesis.

    Of course the separation is also a result of insular history writing. Academic historians spend too much time writing for one another (or more accurately, our tenure committees). I have been guilty of this myself. When asked about the reception of my book I usually reply that it has deeply impressed about 20 people. I need to do better with the next one!

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  2. Lori Stokes

    Thanks for this article, Kevin! It’s well-put and timely. My Ph.D. is not in history; like you, I came to that later. But as a former academic, I can say that academic researchers have opinions and points to prove, just like everyone else. But we are trained to *prove* our points. Good academics do not bend or omit facts to force a claim or an interpretation on the world that doesn’t hold water. Like scientists, many of us start out with a hypothesis, and then after research find that our hypothesis cannot be proved. And so we start over.

    No academic is perfect, but you also don’t get a degree by lying and manipulating facts. Whatever your political or other personal beliefs are, you maintain objectivity in the field, and that’s how you become respected.

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  3. Richard Williams

    Very interesting Kevin and you make some valid points. However, I’d like to comment on this point:

    “For academic historians the goal is interpretation, not with the intent to attack or destroy what is taken to be sacred by some, but to better understand the available evidence.”

    Everyone interprets within the framework of their worldview. It is impossible for any writer/historian to totally divorce themselves from whatever their perspective happens to be.

    You mention Foner. He is a good example of a historian with a notably leftward tilt who brings that perspective to his “interpretation.” Point made.

    Moreover, interpretation in many cases is not “the goal.” The goal is to undermine certain other “interpretations” and to promote certain political views.

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  4. Kevin Levin

    I do want to emphasize that academic historians are also guilty of not taking the time time to more fully appreciate the motivations of certain groups and their respective approaches to the study of history. The ease with which some snub their noses exacerbates the problem, although I don’t believe this happens very often and in the area of Civil War studies even less so.

    Harry, — Thanks for the link. Bateman does a pretty good job of laying out the differences between journalism and history.

    Larry, — I agree that academics have not gone far enough in making their work accessible to a broader audience. At the same time (and you know this as well as anyone) it takes time to write the kind of history that academics were trained to perform and it does often involve a language that is not attractive to the widest group of people. I do believe that historians have become better at it. A few that stand out are Gordon Wood, Jill Lepore, and Alan Taylor.

    Lori,– I agree with you entirely. This idea that academic historians are out to dupe the general public is silly. They are trained in the process of researching and writing history and while there may be a few that are dishonest this is no basis for such a negative generalization.

    Richard, — I agree that it is impossible to divorce oneself from time and place, but this is different from reducing the act of writing history to something that simply reflects personal preferences. There is a way to engage historical studies and this involves a careful consideration of the argument. I could care less whether the author voted Republican or Democrat or whether he/she believes that Jesus is the son of God. Even for Eric Foner, when I read one of his books or articles I do so as a work of history and not as a reflection of his politics. His study of Reconstruction is rightfully considered to be a masterpiece not because it promotes a political agenda, but because of the care which went into crafting the interpretation. Read any scholarly review of it and you will be hard pressed to find that it failed or succeeded based on political considerations.

    As to your final point I would rather not respond without a specific example.

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  5. Kevin Levin

    Richard, — Perhaps you could elaborate by providing an example of where you believe Foner’s interpretation has been influenced by his politics. I don’t mean a quote from an interview or even from the introduction of one of his books, but from an actual scholarly study. In other words, I am interested in an example where it is impossible to interpret as a historical point, but as a political statement. Thanks.

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  6. Scott Smart

    As a lay consumer of Civil War history, I have some perceptions:

    1. Military History appears to be held in low esteem by academic historians in general. This leads to a supposition that academic historians have a dislike for the professional military and lay readers who are interested in it.

    2. The rise of gender and social history, appearing to be of prime concern for academics. In some sense this is the flip side of point 1, but I don’t think lay readers are nearly as interested (preoccupied?) with these questions as academics appear to be.

    3. The rise of “studies” departments with heavy emphasis on post-modern, post-colonial interpretations. Again, I just don’t think lay readers are interested in the whole po-mo-co thing.

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  7. Kevin Levin

    Richard, — Let me try to make my point another way. Every year I give my AP students a chapter from Howard Zinn’s _A People’s History of the United States_ to read and analyze. Their job is to critique the chapter by looking for his main points, his reasoning in support of those main points and the evidence utilized. Now, I could conduct our discussion by sharing bits and pieces of Z’s political activism, which clearly place him to the left of the left. I am sure that we could have an interesting discussion about Z’s neo-Marxist views, but that would not be the same as analyzing the actual argument that he makes in _A People’s History_. You could even argue that Z is pushing a political agenda on his readers, but notice that my students don’t have to worry about that because they are armed with the analytical tools necessary to engage in critical thinking about historical interpretation. I do the same thing with a chapter from Paul Johnson who falls on the opposite side of the political spectrum. We could also argue that he is pushing a political position through his work, but I would argue that that is not nearly as important as understanding how he constructs and defends his preferred interpretation.

    My point is that historical arguments stand or fall based on the quality of the interpretation and not on some explicit or implied political/personal position.

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  8. Paul Taylor

    Kevin,

    An excellent post, as usual. It reminded me immediately of the ongoing kerfuffle about the new Gettysburg Visitors Center, which I have not visited.

    As you mave have seen, the new issue of Civil War News is chock full of letters to the editor generally in support of the newspaper editor’s position that the museum fails miserably as an interpreter of the Gettysburg battle and its related artifacts. Instead, the museum pushes a much broader sociological and racial view of the war as a whole, to the consternation of many. (I read that the museum contains a statue, image, or somesuch of Martin Luther King, Jr. Can that possibly be true?)

    As regards to your post, one letter writer, apparently a museum curator himself, opines that the museum fails because “it was conceived and delivered by professional museum administrators in concert with academic historians, none of whom have any real love or respect for historic artifacts.”

    He continues as to how such a potent combination invariably leads to “an ignorance of and contempt for artifacts and the inbred arrogance of people who think they know better than anyone else what the public needs. In a general sense, it mirrors much of what is wrong with the outside world.”

    While I cannot comment on the museum itself, the remarks of this writer clearly illustrate the mistrust (and perhaps politically-motivated mistrust) that you speak of in your post.

    Paul

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  9. Jarret

    Hi Kevin,

    Regarding the suspicion of academics that sometimes emerges among laymen outside of university walls: it mostly comes from people who have particularly unshakable world views and beliefs that they truly believe are infallible. These types of people are not interested in finding out the truth. Instead, they become defensive and reactionary and resent anyone telling them otherwise, evidence non-withstanding.

    Frankly, many people feel they have a right to tell academics how to do their jobs. Scholarly history, as you well know, is NOT easy to do: it takes long hours of research and interpretive reasoning that academics must be trained to do, and they spend careers doing it. Most academic historians wouldn’t dream of telling an engineer, or a mechanic or a carpenter how to do their jobs, because they aren’t trained to do so, but academics are fair game because they’re “liberal,” or “Marxist,” or any other epitaph used for one who holds progressive beliefs. Yes, academics generally lean towards the progressiove side, and they can often be pompous and boring, but in their defense the very nature of higher education exposes people to new and complicated ideas, new belief systems and new cultures that they would not necessarily have exposure to outside universty walls. Certainly academia could be better about reaching out to the layreader: all of us graduate students have horror stories of long, tedious readings. But many people are too stubborn, too bigoted, too unwilling to evaluate evidence over myth and tradition to care about seeking out historical truth and a more comprehensive understanding of the human condition, however elusive those things may be. If this post sounds pompous, well, what can I say, I’m an academic!

    – Jarret

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  10. Kevin Levin

    Scott and Jarret, — The two of you make some excellent points. My guess is that most people who give the back of their hand to theory no very little or nothing about it. Rather, they are repeating what they hear from various commentators. I guess as someone who studied philosophy in graduate school that I am more comfortable in that element. At the same time I can be quite critical of certain -isms. I find much of post-modern thought to be quite boring and much of it a rehash of Plato’s Protagoras. On the other hand I can read Wittgenstein until the cows come home. Finally, I agree that part of the explanation has to do with broader philosophical/religious assumptions surrounding the root of knowledge.

    Paul, — I hadn’t thought of that connection, but you are absolutely right. How the hell does one even justify the claim that academics are ignorant of and contemptuous of artifacts? I hope to get up to Gettysburg some time soon to see for myself, but until then I will enjoy learning about the insecurities of its detractors.

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  11. Michaela

    As it is Saturday morning, and like every weekend, I just spent some significant time at the university to further my “pompous and ignorant” views of my specific field (neuroscience). I am contemplating to quit and just write for some journal what I think about antidepressants, Autism, Parkinson’s disease, etc. But wait, no serious journal would want my opinion if I quit. But I could write for the National Enquirer. Also, I could have stayed home and enjoyed my time with my husband. To make this point very clear: it is not that I do not know how to enjoy my time outside the lab! But I went here this morning because I chose to ask questions in the field that I am interested in and I signed the silent contract that all Ph.D candidates and Ph.Ds sign: we devote unlimited time to our research. It takes more than a 9-5 day to get even close to truth or answers that might be old news and in need of revision most likely during our lifetime or even the week after publication.

    I did not choose my field because my ancestors were scientists (they were pirates and I swear I am proud of it;) and not because anybody in my family suffers of the disease(s) I study. I cannot stop doing research when I prefer to go for a bike ride and I cannot even stop when I would like to spend more time with family members that battle diseases that we have not found cures for. I have to make sacrifices on my time to do what I love to do and to be still a responsible wife, daughter, sister and friend. Sleep deprivation comes with most Ph.Ds. I cannot write about my field because I read something in a book and even read a second book on it that I found amazing. That is not enough for an argument to be taken seriously in the scientific community…THANK GOD! And certainly the same holds for any other scholarly research.

    I get grilled in committee meetings by the most amazing minds at my university. And that is not a comfortable scenario: you DO doubt yourself at (many) times … so far for being “pompous”. This process forces you to think very hard about your hypothesis and look at months and months of tedious work with a critical eye…and sometimes throw out an experiment because you just did not consider an important factor. And other times it just does not work. Nobody cares about how much I love what I do or how much time I devote to it, if it is not sound. Sound meaning peer review and long nights of agonizing writing and rewriting models that have to work otherwise your argument falls apart. I do not have the liberty to argue that my research gets criticized because I am a foreigner, a woman, not a Southerner, or whatever you choose. I do not have the luxury to argue any reason, but the strength of my experiments and my thread of evidence that supports these experiments. And it is exactly that what you have to do in humanities, too: you cannot lie about historical facts. And yes, your interpretation might differ whether you are a Marxist or a Southern Baptist.

    If one accuses any of us scholarly trained people of fraud, “pushing agendas”, and not telling all there is to the truth one has to prove that we stretched the argument beyond evidence. To do this one has to engage in the art of dialectic, proposing a different hypothesis and showing support for it. Just accusing somebody of political affiliation is not enough. To elevate sincere discussion from party talk, there are rules to the game. Just believing something or being offended does not warrant anything. And just because one can discern somebody’s political views does not weaken their argument at all.

    Ignorance and arrogance are not reserved for scholarly trained people. But please, do not ever tell me that the expertise I gained through my time in research is equal to somebody’s anecdotal knowledge or leisurely reading in my field… or for the matter of fact their LOVE for it. But if you want to criticize me or any other scholar regarding our work, go ahead: MAKE YOUR ARGUMENT.

    PS: Now I will opt for “bliss” and sit in the sun…..LOL

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  12. Greg Rowe

    First, I also came to history a little late in my adult life. Prior to that, I did a little of everything, from heavy industrial labor to farm work. For most of my college career and adult life, I was a journalist.

    The article by Lt. Col. Robert Bateman linked to by Harry makes a very valid point in the differences that I am coming to grips with as a history educator and researcher. While I have always viewed journalists as writing history as it occurs, I often felt the need to defend my takes on the history I have viewed. While most of my observations of history were made in small communities and are not world changing to the global community, they are in the small communities I have edited and published newspapers. While I believe I maintained my journalistic integrity in my news presentation, I made comments on specific article topics in a weekly column. Therefore, I was involved in both presentation and interpretation. The one thing that always made me angry is when readers would make negative comments in a letter to the editor about a story in which the school board or city council proposed something during a meeting which the letter writer had neither attended nor discussed the matter with the alderman or board member. In my columns and the weekly letters, I had some rather interesting commentary battles with my readers. In the end, most of my readers respected that I was willing to challenge perceptions, even if we chose to disagree.

    While there are differences between the work of historians and the work of journalists, as Lt. Col. Bateman points out, to me, my experiences as a newspaper editor and publisher are similar to the acrimony between historians and lay people. The letter writers were criticizing the local leaders without seeking to understand the reasoning behind the decisions that were made. These criticisms were based on a specific set of beliefs held by the letter writer that the decision had, in their estimation, violated. Lay people reading academic history have a firmly held set of beliefs that, in their estimation, have been violated. Rather than investing the time to determine the basis for the historian’s thesis, some (not all) lay people dismiss the ideas presented as “revisionism” or “leftist propaganda.” These lay people seemingly never agree to disagree with the academic historian, but rather hold to a specific thesis as if it were the doctrine that would save their soul from eternal damnation.

    While I have not been at this history gig a long time, the one thing I learned as a journalist that will serve me well is to respect ideas presented until I can do the research to disprove the thesis or idea. That perhaps will get me labeled as “idealistic” or “inexperienced” as it did in my time as a journalist, but the practice seemed to work then and, until I have evidence that it no longer does, I plan to continue to use it.

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  13. Sean Dail

    I still have not seen any specific examples other than Foner given for this broad generalization:

    “Moreover, interpretation in many cases is not “the goal.” The goal is to undermine certain other “interpretations” and to promote certain political views.”

    Did I miss something? I think this is exactly the kind of thing that prompted you to write the post to begin with, is it not, Kevin? It’s a sweeping conclusion about what the goal is for “many” academics, but we’re given only one example. And my guess is that without digging into Horowitz’s silly little book, we’d be hard-pressed to come up with any more examples in the Civil War field.

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  14. Kevin Levin

    Sean, — I didn’t want to bring Horowitz into the mix owing to the controversy that surrounds his claims. That said, from what I’ve read I do think that he raises some interesting questions about the culture of academia that would be worth exploring. Part of the problem is that Horowitz is often times his own worst enemy.

    It is hard not to arrive at the conclusion that most of the people who make such generalizations do so without any understanding of how research is carried out or first-hand experience. As I stated in the post, this is clearly part of the ongoing culture wars where vague characterizations tend to hold sway.

    I wouldn’t hold my breadth for another example from with the field of American history or, more interestingly, Civil War history.

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  15. Bruce Miller

    Kevin, this is quite a thought-provoking post. Without getting off into the aether of postmodernism, etc., I have a few thoughts from reading your post and the previous comments.

    One is that some approaches to history are blatantly political/ideological and not concerned with understanding historical reality at all. The whole neo-Confederate enterprise fits that mold.

    So do the endless references to “Munich” and “appeasement” we hear. Geeorgia, of course, is the latest “Czechoslovakia”. How many “Hitlers” have we fought since the Second World War? It would be easier to say how many of the enemies we’ve fought since then *weren’t* considered to be a new Hitler. That whole Munich/appeasement analogy is so over-used, and so painfully superficially understood, that I agree with the historian Jeffrey Record that we’d be better off if politicians stopped using it altogether. Because for most people, history in that case has been buried under so many layers of idology and political tribalism that they couldn’t stand to read an actual account of the events. Much less try to analyze what the real problems and options for decision-makers were.

    It occurs to me also that in reading history – and I count as an “amateur” (no History Ph.D.) – that I take different approaches based on my own purpose in reading something. Recently, I found myself refreshing my mind on some details about one of my favorite historical subjects, Andrew Jackson. One reason was that I was doing a blog post about the paper that John “Torture” Yoo did using Jackson as a precedent for his theory of the Unitary Executive, aka, the Presidency as an elective dictator. The other was because the recent obsessive discussion among the gossipy children we know as the national press about the recently revealed love affair of a famous politician reminded me of the Peggy Eaton brouhaha.

    In that case, where I was generally familiar with the subject and have definite opinions of my own about Jackson, I didn’t have any trouble distinguishing opinion from fact and both from the argument over Constitutional precedent. And even though I think of Yoo as a execrable character, I still read his paper and tried to focus on where he was on solid factual ground. As he is, on some points, though his Constitutional interpretation reeks.

    On the other hand, if the topic is fairly new, I’m more focused on the broad narrative arc. I’m reading a book now, “Breve Historia de la Argentina” by Jose Luis Romero. Because I’ve been wanting to learn more about Argentine history than I can get from an encyclopedia article. And I’ve found that good general histories of Argentina aren’t so easy to come by as I expected.

    This one works for me, because it gives me a narrative framework that I can reference, e.g., 1916-1930 as the “Radical Republic” and 1930-1943 as the “Conservative Republic”. And it tells me some of the more important historical figures at various points. In this case, I’m not so worried about his interpretations. And wouldn’t know enough to challenge them anyway. I might look at his book two years from now after learning a bit more and think, oh man, he gives a hackneyed account of this or that. So, when I’m looking at an unfamiliar subject, I’m seeking more of an historical narrative framework from which to proceed. I’ll start arguing with the interpretations later.

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