Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis Bow Out Ungracefully

Clarification: I don’t want to leave readers with the impression that academic presses do not publish for the general public. That should have been clarified below. As many of you know the University of North Carolina is publishing my forthcoming book on the myth of the black Confederate soldier.

Earlier today I came across a posted a short clip from a recent conversation with historians Gordon Wood and Joseph Ellis. I have read my share of books by Wood and Ellis and have learned and profited from both. This is largely what makes this brief clip so painful to watch.

Both Ellis and Wood make a number of questionable claims about the state of the history profession. They clearly have a problem with the recent turn toward social, cultural, and gender history, not because the interpretations themselves are flawed, but because they believe it has come to overshadow a more “positive” or traditional narrative of America’s founding. As a result, they argue that students entering college now and American generally know less about the Constitution and the Founding Fathers than previous generations. Of course, there is no evidence to substantiate these claims.

Unfortunately, they follow this up by pushing the popular meme that academic historians have abandoned the general public. Wood longs for the days when Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, Oscar Handlin, and Daniel Boorstin (all men) “wrote for two audiences simultaneously.” The notion that academic historians no longer write for the general public is absolute nonsense. To perpetuate this is incredibly irresponsible.

David Blight is getting set to publish a major biography of Frederick Douglass with Simon & Schuster.  I am in the middle of reading Steven J. Ross’s Hitler in Los Angeles, which was a finalist for this year’s Pulitzer Prize. We are living in a golden age of history books written by academics for a wide audience.

As I write this I am looking at a shelf that contains recent titles by Jane Kamensky, Alan Taylor, T. H. Breen, Jill Lepore, Annette Gordon-Reed, Peter Onuf, William J. Cooper, Pamela Haag, Eric Rauchway, Heather Ann Thompson, Nicholas Stargardt, Jacqueline Jones, Gordon Wood, and Bryant Simon. All of these people are academic historians who have recently published books with non-academic presses.

Others are going to be much harder on Wood and Ellis. That’s fine. Both helped to spark my interest in history back in the early 1990s. Ellis’s American Sphinx is still one of my favorite biographies and Wood’s Radicalism of the American Revolution focused me on issues and questions that I never before thought about.

I am disappointed that neither Ellis nor Wood has taken the time to do a more thorough review of the field that they helped to popularize and beyond. There is an incredible amount of high quality history being written by their colleagues. Instead, Ellis and Wood have manifested into the tired cliche of the disgruntled elderly man railing against a world that has passed him by.

35 comments add yours

  1. Ellis isn’t describing the way history is taught at my school.

    • Same here. I’ve got multiple books by both men and used their works in my master’s thesis. If anything I think they’re buying into the stereotype that keeps getting pushed by people with an agenda regarding what history gets taught. The profession is alive. It is well. Students are coming into my classes and wanting to learn history. They don’t have to take the classes either. They’re there of their own free will knowing full well that they will be reading and writing history while being required to answer questions about the past that are designed for the students to do some research and construct interpretations which are then analyzed by other students and myself as the instructor.

      Oddly enough, I’ve found that by inserting a lesson on historical research and methods into the beginning of the semester, the students are more apt to get involved.

  2. Better to learn and teach history rather than the American myths I heard in my grade and high schools.

  3. Kevin,

    With all due respect you’ve made this point several times in the past, and I have to ask, what evidence do you have that their claims are inaccurate? Can you point to a study that shows student’s knowledge of American history has improved over the years? You refuse anecdotal evidence that shows students know little about their country’s past. OK, but what about the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s report that in 2010 only 11 percent of public high school seniors were at or above proficiency in US history and 55 percent were below basic levels? Are they making it up? Where is the counter-evidence? The figures don’t show that much change over the past several years.

    https://www.nationsreportcard.gov/ushistory_2010/g12_nat.aspx?tab_id=tab2&subtab_id=Tab_1#chart

    As for your questioning that academic historians have abandoned a popular audience there are a couple of points. First, the abandonment actually took place long before even Hofstadter et al dominated the profession. It happened in the early 20th century when academic historians pushed non-academics out of the major organizations such as the American Historical Association. When was the last time a non-academic was president of the AHA? By my research it was Jules Jusserand in 1921 (although Woodrow Wilson was elected in 1924 after serving in the presidency but he still could easily be considered an academic. He didn’t serve because he died). In my own research on Ida Tarbell, she had as much academic training in Paris at the Sorbonne and the College de France in historical methodology in the 1880s as many college professors of the same time period received in Germany (she was close friends with the father of modern French historiographical studies, Charles Seignobos and took classes with him in the Sorbonne) yet she was never taken seriously by many academic historians of later generations because she declined to teach and wrote for popular magazines. And she was respected by earlier academic historians, namely Herbert Baxter Adams.

    Second, many if not most of those names you mentioned are either at the point of being a full professor with tenure or in emeritus status, so they have nothing to lose by writing for non-academic audiences. Try telling a newly-minted Ph.D that he/she should write for a larger audience and see what kind of reaction you get. They would never get tenure and likely would never raise above assistant or associate professor levels.

    One other point. It wasn’t just white men in that era. Mary Beard and Lillian Handlin (and before her Oscar Handlin’s first wife, Mary) were also respected in the field. Although she isn’t as well-known, Ella Lonn also produced work that was noted in the field of Civil War studies, although less so in popular culture. I would be a fool to deny that academia was dominated by men, but so was just about every other field in that era. We may find it disagreeable to our modern sensibilities, but we can’t change how it was.

    Finally, if there is a tired cliche in regards to academic vs. non-academic history, it is generally because of the numerous articles written about the subject by academic historians who cannot understand why the general public eschews their work. When was the last time Jon Meachem or David McCullough or Walter Isaacson wrote a hand-wringing article about why no academic historian takes them seriously?

    Best
    Rob

    • Hi Rob,

      Thanks for taking the time to comment.

      I am all ears if you can find me any evidence that Americans today know less about their history than in decades past. I’ve seen complaints about the failure to adequately teach history and lack of historical knowledge going back to the early twentieth century.

      I am certainly well aware of the history of the historical profession, but I don’t see how that is directly relevant to my main point, which is that there are plenty of books being written by academic historians that bridge the academic/general public divide.

      Second, many if not most of those names you mentioned are either at the point of being a full professor with tenure or in emeritus status, so they have nothing to lose by writing for non-academic audiences.

      I don’t know to what extent, if at all, this is true. However, even if it is it doesn’t negate my overall point.

      The historians in my post were referenced specifically by Gordon Wood. He apparently isn’t aware of any academic women in the field in the 1950s. You should take this up with Wood.

      • Kevin,

        You and I will never agree where this is concerned, and that’s perfectly fine. However, I did provide you with a link that shows evidence of a lack of historical literacy in 12th graders. You chose to ignore it. It isn’t conclusive proof, but neither is it something to wave away.

        So far all you’ve provided is your opinion that Wood and Ellis are wrong.

        I wasn’t trying to negate your argument on the books. I was only adding context. There are indeed academic historians who engage with the general public and do so consistently and very well. They are also miniscule compared to the number of academic historians in the field. The majority don’t care, because they know their elders would see it as selling out and would likely be career suicide.

        Best
        Rob

        • You said:

          The majority don’t care, because they know their elders would see it as selling out and would likely be career suicide.

          Now who is providing opinion?

          I am well aware of the kinds of surveys you provided in your previous comment. I don’t deny them nor do I think they should be ignored. What I am suggesting, however, is that without any data from previous decades we don’t have much to go on in terms of evaluating what Americans now know compared to years past. The SPLC recently released a report about the state of slavery in our classrooms. It’s worth reading, but it also lacks historical context. Only roughly forty percent of high school seniors can properly identity “The Middle Passage.” OK, but how many could identity it in the 1950s? Was it even taught in the 1950s as opposed to the Lost Cause view that they were all loyal and loved their masters.

          Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

          • Opinion based on the words of James McPherson.

            “A colleague at a California university recently remarked to me that I would be forced to choose between becoming a ‘popular historian’ or a ‘historian’s historian.’ He strongly hinted that I was in danger of becoming the former,” wrote James M. McPherson in 1995. “Why couldn’t I be both?” McPherson responded. “Surely it is possible to say something of value to fellow professionals while at the same time engaging a wider audience.” (From “Drawn With the Sword” pg. 253)

            “And I think it has had some kind of impact but there is a countervailing
            pressure within the profession, and that is that if your books appeal to too many people then you are a “popularizer,” And “popularizer” is a bad word because it seems to imply a lack of serious scholarship, the lack of any kind of breakthrough search or methodological techniques. You are not advancing knowledge, you are retailing it to the masses. So, especially for younger historians there is a feeling that if they write something that a junior in high school would find interesting, it’s no good. Therefore
            they write to other academic peers or graduate students or professors, and they can show they can use words like paradigm or some of the other jargon. And in a way I suppose that’s OK, that’s part of the apprenticeship. But I think that for those who are capable of doing it, they should begin to write for a broader audience. Maybe after they get tenure or something, because to get tenure you show your colleagues that you are right up there with the “cutting edge,” All of these clichés—”cutting edge” is good, “popularizing” is bad. These have become clichés or stereotypes that we shouldget away from, but they still exist.” (“An Interview with Dr James M. McPherson,” Southern Historian, Vol. 29, April 13, 2008 Pgs. 7-21)

            Best
            Rob

      • Sam Wineburg is correct. The approach to teaching students history in K-12 and the college survey courses is in my opinion quite often the wrong approach. Far too often it focuses on whether the students memorize information and can check the correct answer on a multiple choice exam. I think any exam that only uses multiple choice questions should be thrown out the window and any instructor that relies on that type of exam (not quiz) in lieu of essay driven (exams that contain multiple questions requiring written answers of several sentences or longer; they may or may not include some M/C questions) exams is a rather poor example of the teaching profession in our history discipline.

        If we teach our students how to apply historical thinking skills involving the use of analytical reasoning, then we are not making them memorize data, but instead teaching them how to encounter history and develop interpretations based upon factual information. If they can use those skills, they are not bound by the data in textbooks, but instead possess the ability to seek out information and process that information in addition to what is in the textbook. That goes far beyond the discipline of history as well.

        I happen to think history is one of the best disciplines for helping human beings become critical thinkers. In order to create critical thinkers, instructors have to employ learning methods that focus on the development of those skills in the students. Those instructors have to use assessments that require critical thinking skills to answer the questions. Multiple choice exams do not meet that requirement. Instructors that only lecture students and expect them to be passive learners are not teaching critical thinking skills. Passive learning will not result in the creation of critical thinkers.

        Instructors should be using interactive teaching methods that get students actively involved in the learning process through the use of historical thinking skills. That means developing lesson plans that require written answers at the very least. It also means teaching historical thinking skills at the beginning of the class and reinforcing those skills continuously throughout the course. There’s more to this obviously, but this is a short and quick beginning answer.

        History is fine. It is the method of teaching it that needs to be addressed and that includes assessments. The scores on the exams are not getting better and are not getting worse. Why would they? Nothing has changed on a large scale regarding how we teach the discipline in over a century. Until we change that approach to teaching this subject, those scores will not improve significantly.

    • How nice that you can name two respected female historians. I’m an amateur who reads history for fun, and I can name a lot more (Stephanie McCurry, Drew Faust, Chandra Manning, Elizabeth Varon and Thavolia Glymph, for example), whose works I have enjoyed in the last few years.
      I’m afraid Mary Beard was to history what Queenie Leavis was to literature: the exception that proved the rule.

    • “what about the National Assessment of Educational Progress’s report that in 2010 only 11 percent of public high school seniors were at or above proficiency in US history and 55 percent were below basic levels?”

      Assuming those stats are accurate, I’m pretty sure the problem is public schools deemphasizing history to focus more on STEM.

      Also, how does that compare to earlier numbers? I went through high school in the 1990s and I don’t think most of my peers learned history very well then either.

      • I am certainly not suggesting that we can’t do a better job of teaching history. What I am pointing to is the lack of data measuring knowledge of history and civics over the course of the twentieth century.

        • “What I am pointing to is the lack of data measuring knowledge of history and civics over the course of the twentieth century.”

          And what exactly would that do if such data existed? It’s overly broad to insist that there must be 100-plus years of data to show whether or not historical literacy is a pattern when the NAEP that I initially linked to has shown it to be since at least 1994 (and other reports have shown it in earlier years). Quite honestly I don’t care whether my grandfather or father was historically literate. I care about whether my nieces and nephews will be in the future. And much of the data, and anecdotal evidence (which also cannot be ignored) shows that they won’t be.

          Let me leave you with this that I came across today:

          “The college teacher of history finds in like manner that his subject has never taken any serious hold on the minds of pupils fresh from the secondary schools. He finds that they have devoted astonishingly little time to the subject; and that they have acquired no habit of historical investigation, or of the comparative examination of different historical narratives concerning the same periods or events.”

          This came in 1892 from the Report of the Committee of Ten. Seems everything old is new again.

          Best
          Rob

          • I am losing track of where this discussion began. I simply responded to the implicit assumption on the part of Wood and Ellis that new narratives of race, violence, etc. has worked to undercut general knowledge of American history. I find very little evidence that this is the case.

            So, where would you like to go from here?

            • Speaking only for myself, I simply would like an answer to my question as to why statistics originating in 1994 seem to be invalid in your mind? Along those same lines, how would having data from earlier in the 20th century either validate or invalidate what has been going on since 1994?

              Best
              Rob

              • I don’t believe I ever suggested that it is invalid. Again, Wood and Ellis seem to be making a claim that extends way beyond the scope of this data. I don’t see any connection between the data and concerns about about a shift in the kind of questions, primary sources, and narratives that history educators now introduce to their students.

          • Re-posting this. Sam Wineburg has studied US students historical knowledge over time:
            Americans historical knowledge has changed little over time:
            https://news.stanford.edu/news/2004/march31/history-331.html
            This is from 15 years ago, but little has changed and don’t expect it to.
            Sam Wineburg – linked – has written a good deal about it.
            Ultimately, for him, it is the wrong question. He believes we should be focusing on skills or teaching students how to be historians.

  4. Gordon Wood is a contributor to an exciting new book project exploring the American narrative — whether one exists and, if so, what it ought to be. Other contributors include David Blight, Alan Taylor, Cass Sunstein, Richard Epstein, Eleanor Clift, James Wertsch, and John Danforth, among others. The big announcement should come soon.

  5. Kevin,

    Without getting into the thrust of their apparent issue with many academics, I think their big picture of the Founding is not altogether flawed. I find it almost shocking how on a daily basis the, by and large, younger generation or two are perfectly willing to lump the Founders in with the Southern secessionists of 1860-61 because they have been “taught” or “told” that the Founders were, in simple terms, just racist, rich, white guys. To blend those two groups of men, and what they stood for, and what they espoused, is fundamentally wrong. It is also dangerous because it implies the country was founded in error.

    Now, plenty of the older generations simply look at the Founders and the founding of the country through rose-colored glasses and refuse to even acknowledge many difficult truths. But that does not let the younger crowd off the hook. They are, in my opinion, tuned into a history in a real and organic way that even my generation was not. They are receptive to the idea that the Founders did something quite incredible, even if parts of the equation were flawed. The same is true of Lincoln. His evolving views of race are more nuance, than just simply black and white. But they have to be taught that, and dare I say they need to hear the words, not just read them.

    Thomas Jefferson and George Washington are not Jefferson Davis and Alexander Stephens. They were not the same in the 18th and 19th century and they sure as heck are not today. I am of the opinion that historic sites are the future of ground-breaking interpretation, because it is true, at least from my perspective, that too many writers today are treating history, and therefore people, like science. Life, especially from 150+ years ago, is not just an equation or a scientific constant.

    • The history of the Founding Fathers and the founding of this nation has always been used to reinforce a broader narrative that itself has little to do with history. I don’t see much of a difference between casting them as God’s chosen people and villains, though I do agree that they make for bad history.

      The work that is being produced today by academics for the general public has never been richer and more reflective of the racial and cultural mix of this nation. I don’t see the same crisis that Wood and Ellis believe exists.

    • I am far from young, and I can recognize the founders as both racist (and sexist) rich (white) guys and as having come up with a pretty great idea. I call this a more accurate picture.

  6. I’ve been pretty frustrated with Wood for awhile now. His work is good: it’s interesting and useful, though it is now dated. (This is especially true of Radicalism, which just seems quaint now in how it thinks about [or doesn’t think about] enslaved people and women. The exploding historiography on Haiti points us to a very different way of thinking about what made the Age of Revolutions radical.) Nevertheless, Radicalism and the WMQ roundtable on it remain on my recommended reading list for graduate students. He made important arguments that we should still be thinking about. My frustration with Wood isn’t that his work is older now–it’s that he pretends that no other work exists or is worthy of being read. His entry in the Oxford History of the United States is a case in point: it’s as if he stopped reading new books in sometime between 1985 and 1990. He demands that we read and respect his work (which we do, by and large, I think early Americanists recognize the importance of his writing) but he refuses to read and engage work that challenges or modifies his own ideas. That to me is the sign of a failed intellectual. His only move now is to whine that historians aren’t doing the same kind of work they were doing when he was trained in the 1960s. It’s a cop out and a disappointment from someone who was once a giant in the field.

    • I’ve heard the same concerns expressed by others. It’s unfortunate that he didn’t stay on top of new research given that he rode the crest of a new historiographical trend while studying with Bailyn and others at Harvard.

  7. Hi Rob,

    “Can you point to a study that shows student’s knowledge of American history has improved over the years?”

    The Olds marched to the polls under the banner of one of the greatest historical obscenities of my time, “Make American Great Again.” While the kids were busy helping to take down shrines to bad history, aka Confederate Monuments.

    Yes, the kids get it.

  8. Dear Kevin, Rob and Others,
    Personally, I find that using NAEP’s notions of “proficiency” to be terribly unconvincing. First, they are absolutely arbitrary. They are “standard setting” scores, not based on what any “proficient” adult knows (there is, btw, no testing of an adult population) but by a group of people sitting around a table making arm-chair decisions about what proficient should be (I would love to give members of Congress NAEP questions and factoids embedded in the distractors). Moreover, might we consider the well-known problems of giving NAEP to high school students when they know that their scores mean nothing for their own individual record, that they will receive no feedback on their performance, and that they can fill out the Scantron (now administered via computer) with random bubble marks with impunity? Furthermore, when NAEP-history turns to testing something beyond facts, the results have to be viewed skeptically. To readers who have university library access I recommend this article: http://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.3102/0002831217717949
    If you don’t, here’s an Op-Ed about the same study in the Washington Post, https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/answer-sheet/wp/2017/09/19/the-nations-report-card-says-it-assesses-critical-thinking-in-history-but-naep-gets-an-f-on-that-score/?utm_term=.720323afe2f4
    Finally, at the risk of belaboring the point, let me quote this summary of results from a test of American students’ historical knowledge, “Surely a grade of 33 in 100 on the simplest and most obvious facts of American history is not a record in which any high school can take pride.” From the 1987 NAEP? Or more recent? No. From 1917, the first large-scale test of American history given to Texas high school and college students.

  9. Professor’s Wood and Ellis are accurate here, I think. It is certainly true that academics have become increasingly disinterested in more traditional political history in favor of “social” and “cultural history.” As a result, I often find myself looking to works published at least twenty-five to thirty years ago, often more, or to works which are being written by non-academics, as that is where I am finding the most in-depth, valuable and challenging coverage of persons and events.

    Furthermore, while there are certainly works which are being published that have value, I am finding weak coverage of events and a fairly extensive use of psycho-analysis and speculation in many social and cultural histories which are being published at the moment, both of which are trends that I can confidently say are not good ones.

    So, I very much agree with Professor’s Wood and Ellis on this and I think that it is an important point which they are making.

    • We clearly don’t shop in the same bookstores. Thanks for the comment.

Now that you've read the post, share your thoughts.