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.