by Jeremy Young | 6/29/2008 10:00:00 AM
Part II of a two-part series on Carl Becker's 1931 Presidential Address to the American Historical Association, "Everyman His Own Historian." The series is part of the ProgressiveHistorians 2008 Summer Symposium.

Ask any administrator or professor in the humanities what use their field is, and the amount of equivocation and soul-searching you'll receive in response will clue you into a little secret: this is a time of crisis for practitioners of the humanities. Thanks to university budget cuts and conservative attacks on their fields, humanities scholars are increasingly forced to defend something many of them have in past taken for granted: the importance of their research to the modern experience. Though conservative activists have attacked most strongly those fields that represent the political left -- race and gender studies, peace studies, and other such interdisciplinary programs -- the fields that have proven hardest to defend are older, more traditional ones: disciplines such as anthropology, English, and increasingly history. Once considered indispensable parts of a well-rounded education, along with now-rarely-taught disciplines such as Latin and rhetoric, these fields have increasingly found themselves labeled as irrelevant and pointless.

Much of this is our own fault, as AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel courageously acknowledged in a January 2008 essay in Perspectives, "The Case for History and the Humanities." "...Those of us in historically oriented humanistic disciplines have not been very clever about the ways in which we argue for the importance and centrality of our fields of inquiry," Spiegel admitted. "In defending the practice of history, or the humanities more generally, academics who have dedicated their lives to such study tend to rely on old shibboleths about the importance of understanding history, art, languages, and so on, and understanding what it means to be 'human.' ... But as the term "shibboleth" implies, we are often, I think, simply talking to each other. As a consequence, arguments for the importance of history and the humanities are losing their purchase; they tend to rely upon a sense of the intrinsic importance of comprehending the achievements of the past in a world undergoing rapid and far-reaching change."

Spiegel went on to justify the importance of history on the grounds that it provides an understanding and appreciation of difference that is critical in our global and rapidly-changing world. "American society and government has never needed the kind of historical, linguistic, ethical, and cultural instruction offered by the humanities more crucially than at the present time," she wrote. "The exercise of power without a sense of ethical responsibility is dangerous; the exercise of power without historical knowledge is a prescription for disaster."

While I admire Spiegel for her noble effort to justify her field for the modern age, her argument ignores the fact that newer disciplines, such as cultural studies, ethnic studies, and various other interdisciplinary fields, achieve the goals of historical and cultural competency much better than does straight-up history. While historians have struggled to adapt to the demands of a transnational and transcultural approach, the newer fields founded on this approach face no such obstacles. Thus, if one's primary goal is to "de-other" other peoples and cultures, history is far from the first line of defense.

The trouble with all this hand-wringing among historians is that it is unnecessary. These concerns are understandable in other fields, such as English or anthropology; most Americans don't devour literary criticism or seek out information on the intricacies of the Yanomami. But the amazing thing about history is just how many people want to read about it. Step into any Barnes & Noble and you'll find shelves full of glossy, high-priced history books on a wide variety of subjects. Those volumes aren't there just to fill space; popular presses literally sell millions of copies of history and history-related books each year. While these books do tend to cluster around certain subjects -- predominantly American history, political and military history, biography, and the Founding Fathers -- there's no denying that many lay Americans find history a stimulating and important subject worth spending their hard-earned dollars on.

The honest truth is that all those folks who puzzle over the "justification" for historical studies are simply thinking too hard. Sports handicappers and fashion designers don't need to justify their professions; they're important because people want what they're selling. Similarly, there's no need for us to come up with rambling defenses of history as a profession when people are lining up at the nearest bookstore to lay down good money for historians' renditions of the past.

What we need to justify, instead, is why the historical profession as a whole has contemptuously spurned the lifeline that popular history represents. Those with influence over the profession -- hiring committees, tenure panels, and scholarly organizations like the AHA -- generally take a dim view of those who write for popular presses, whether they be amateur or professional historians. This extends to ephemera such as op-eds and blog posts as well. Not too long ago, a well-reputed historian explained to me in great detail the ways in which the academic deck is stacked against historians who choose to write for the public. The short version is that the monetary perks of tenure, promotion, and grants far outweigh the amount of money most popular historians can earn in royalties and speaking engagements. As a direct consequence, the number of academic historians who write for popular presses, or for a lay audience at all, is alarmingly few. It's tempting to blame the big chain bookstores for not selling what professional historians have to offer, but for once it's not big business' fault; academic historians are simply not writing what the public wants to read.

At this point, many readers will begin wondering where this isn't all simply a consequence of academic freedom. After all, aren't historians supposed to be able to write on any subject that interests them? Certainly, any individual historian should be able to choose his or her topic without outside interference -- but the fact is that there have always been scholarly norms within the academic community that pressure scholars to conform to whatever the "hot" new trend happens to be. During the first half of the twentieth century, political historians dominated the academic community, issuing forth a steady stream of books on political and economic policy, elections, international relations, and biographies of famous men (and the occasional woman). After the New Left revolution of the 1960's, the historical community switched its focus to social history, resulting in endless books on peasants, Marxist-influenced social class theory, and the "history of everyday life." Around the late 1980's, cultural history began to predominate, leading to the current crop of books influenced by literary, cultural, and postmodern theory. Today the focus seems to be shifting again, to transnational and global history -- and believe me, as a current graduate student, I can tell you that the pressure to include transnational components in my publications is exceedingly high.

The problem is that, although the historical profession has changed its focus repeatedly since the 1950's, the general public has not followed suit. Following the tastes of lay readers, the Barnes & Noble shelves still display the sort of fare they did fifty years ago: books on political history and biographies (most bookstores have a separate biography section because of the high demand for this subgenre). In the 1950's, however, these books were authored by towering scholars such as Arthur Schlesinger, Richard Hofstadter, and C. Vann Woodward. Thanks to today's scholarly apathy toward political history and biography, the authors of books on these subjects form a curious constellation of amateur historians, political figures, journalists, aging professors emeriti trained before the 1960's, and a few lonely academic historians, most of whom are frowned upon by their departments.

This alarming bifurcation of scholarly and popular history has serious consequences. Popular books written by non-scholarly historians tend, unsurprisingly, to be weaker specimens than were their scholarly counterparts fifty years ago; they are often poorly sourced and lack the sort of overarching arguments about history that make scholarly books valuable. On the other side of the coin, academic historians are urged to write books that are esoteric and that do not conform with what the general public wants to read. They're faced with a truly bizarre situation: write a book that only two hundred people buy, and you're lauded as a serious, mature scholar; write an op-ed for two million readers and you're derided as a popularizer.

The historian Carl Becker, a noted Cornell University scholar who was active during the first four decades of the twentieth century, understood the dangers of this specialist approach to history all too well. In a little-quoted passage from his 1931 AHA Presidential Address, "Everyman His Own Historian," Becker warned his colleagues that they ignored popular historical tastes to their peril. Because Becker's words still have resonance today, I've reproduced the passage here in its entirety.

Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise he will leave us to our own devices, leave us it may be to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research. Such research, valuable not in itself but for some ulterior purpose, will be of little import except in so far as it is transmuted into common knowledge. The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world. The history that does work in the world, the history that influences the course of history, is living history, that pattern of remembered events, whether true or false, that enlarges and enriches the collective specious present, the specious present of Mr. Everyman. It is for this reason that the history of history is a record of the "new history" that in every age rises to confound and supplant the old. It should be a relief to us to renounce omniscience, to recognize that every generation, our own included, will, must inevitably, understand the past and anticipate the future in the light of its own restricted experience, must inevitably play on the dead whatever tricks it finds necessary for its own peace of mind. The appropriate trick for any age is not a malicious invention designed to take anyone in, but an unconscious and necessary effort on the part of 'society' to understand what it is doing in the light of what it has done and what it hopes to do. We, historians by profession, share in this necessary effort. But we do not impose our version of the human story on Mr. Everyman; in the end it is rather Mr. Everyman who imposes his version on us—compelling us, in an age of political revolution, to see that history is past politics, in an age of social stress and conflict to search for the economic interpretation. If we remain too long recalcitrant Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened. Our proper function is not to repeat the past but to make use of it, to correct and rationalize for common use Mr. Everyman's mythological adaptation of what actually happened. We are surely under bond to be as honest and as intelligent as human frailty permits; but the secret of our success in the long run is in conforming to the temper of Mr. Everyman, which we seem to guide only because we are so sure, eventually, to follow it.

As this passage shows, Becker recognized that overspecialization was the true peril of the historical profession. Whatever their area of focus, historians generally agree that we have much to teach ordinary citizens about thinking historically, learning from past historical events, and incorporating general historical knowledge into their worldview. When lay readers stop consuming the history we write, our ability as a profession to influence them in any way is eliminated. Those who decry Americans' lack of historical knowledge fail to realize that we historians are largely to blame for not seriously trying to improve that knowledge. If a historian writes a book and no one reads it, does it really matter? Becker believed it did not, and I agree with him.

But history has not stopped doing work in the world; the sales at Barnes & Noble confirm that beyond a doubt. It's just that the academic community has disengaged itself from that work. We have forgotten that the way to reach out to the general public is not to lecture them on what they should be interested in, but to cater to what they are already interested in. That doesn't mean any topic should be off the table, but there are ways to frame historical arguments that engage the general public rather than simply specialized scholars. A historian who wants to make a point about the complexity of American race relations in the 1960's, for instance, could write a book about critical theory as exemplified by black literary journals, or she could write a joint biography of James Baldwin and Maya Angelou -- one that just happens to contain a large amount of material about the milieu in which they lived and worked. The content of a historical monograph need not suffer simply because its author chooses to make it interesting to a general audience.

No individual historian's work should be censored by these dictates; instead, it is the culture of the academy that needs to change. In a field motivated by a desire to learn from the past, we should do so in relation to our own specialty. We should reclaim that aspect of 1950's academic culture that rewarded scholars, not penalized them, for engaging effectively with the general public through published works. We should encourage historians to aggressively colonize and then conquer the popular historical market by producing well-researched, well-argued books on popular subjects. We should reward historians for publishing ephemera and for engaging in online conversation with lay readers. We should discourage specialization, narrowness, and jargon in published work. Though the task may be daunting, potential payoff is great -- when scholarly history again does work in the world, who will question its intrinsic worth?



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