Why We Need Professional Historians
Last night Judge Andrew Napolitano returned to The Daily Show a week after Stewart’s segment in which he critiqued some of the judge’s most problematic claims about Lincoln and the war. You can watch the interview [and here] as well as the little game show skit featuring Napolitano and a panel of historians, including Eric Foner, Manisha Sinha, and James Oakes.
The interview alone ought to remind us of why we need professional historians. Here we have two intelligent and even well read individuals, but put them together for a discussion about Lincoln and the Civil War and what you get is mud. Neither of them has a firm grasp of the subject. Half the time I couldn’t even follow what exactly they were saying. It has nothing to do with their political affiliations or anything else personal. It has everything to do with the fact that this is a complex subject that demands a great deal of time.
Right now my students are sorting through a collection of primary sources to better understand why emancipation happened when it did and why African Americans were eventually enlisted into the United States army. They have to sort through what appear to be contradictory statements by Lincoln; they have to make sense of the military scene; and they have to have some grasp of the many other factors shaping policy on these divisive subjects. One day a student may leave class feeling confident and the next day she arrives having read a bit more and is even more confused. It takes time.
I am not suggesting that academic historians are unbiased and I am certainly not suggesting that they are infallible, but there is a place and especially a need for trained professionals whose job it is to sort through and make sense of the past. Thanks to Stewart and Napolitano for the reminder.