Moore on the Silence of the Academy

9 07 2010

Christopher Moore has a very interesting post on the Wellington/Macdonald controversy. Let me quote from it:

“What’s most striking about the tempest in a teapot over the possible renaming of Ottawa’s Wellington Street “Macdonald Avenue” — is how much the discussion relies on non-academic historians… it also reflects what we might call “the silence of the academy” these days. Among the army of Canadianists in our university history departments, there are many busy, dedicated and hardworking scholars, but vanishingly few, it seems, who are writing big books or otherwise disseminating ideas that resonate with broader ideas about Canadian history.  I try to cover the waterfront, looking for big, serious, important contributions about the history of this country… and some days the gleanings seem pretty thin, compared to the historical resources we have.”Tea

Moore is touching on a rather important point here. The phenomenon he is describing is not confined to Canada.

In a recent article in the New Yorker, Harvard historian Jill Lepore observed that the Tea Party’s appropriation of the memory of the American Revolution was a travesty of historical interpretation. She argues that Tea Party activists have been able to get away with calling themselves the true descendants of the American Revolutionaries in part because academic historians have given up writing accessible books aimed at the general public. The history professors who actually know about the American Revolution have decided to specialize in writing books with tiny readerships that largely consist of other academics. The result is that many average citizens now get their information about the American Revolution from journalists such as Glen Beck.

She writes: “The American historical profession defines itself by its dedication to the proposition that looking to the past to explain the present falls outside the realm of serious historical study. That stuff is for amateurs and cranks. [Professor Richard] Hofstadter disagreed. He recognized the perils of presentism—seeing the past as nothing more than a prologue to the present introduces evidentiary and analytical distortions and risks reducing humanistic inquiry to shabby self-justification—but he believed that scholars with something to say about the relationship between the past and the present had an obligation to say it, as carefully as possible, by writing with method, perspective, and authority. Hofstadter died in 1970. He was one of the last university professors of American history to reach readers outside the academy with sweeping interpretations of his own time.”

I think that Lepore and Moore are overstating the degree to which academic historians have withdrawn from the task of writing books that are both scholarly and accessible to a wider audience. Professor Gordon S. Wood continues to publish books on the Revolutionary and early national periods that are read by many no academics. Professor Alan Taylor, who also specializes in the same period of US history, also writes a regular column in the New Republic magazine. Professor David Cannadine is often heard on the BBC.


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11 07 2010
Doug

You make a good point: academic historians *are* living up to Hofstadter’s standards in most of their material that gains a non-academic readership. But I’m not sure there are enough of these academic historians peppering the bookshelves of places like Chapter’s which define popular history through the volume of sales. To be a bit of a materialist about it, sales play a critical (but not necessarily determining) role in how widely the theses/ideas/viewpoints of academics are disseminated. In addition, while historians have some presence in the newspapers and on radio, they are almost absent on television. And it’s reasonable to ask whether or not the historians who do find themselves reaching the public represent a sampling of the diverse viewspoints found within the academy (of course, this concern opens up many more questions about academic historians).

That said, I don’t see the big deal about the Macdonald-Wellington debate. The question largely rests upon a value judgement in the realm nationalist self-identity: do we replace one valid British name with a valid Canadian name? Historians don’t really have much to contribute other than informing people about Wellington. And the media doesn’t really need historians for this.

This is unlike the question raised by Lepore which involves the the activist Republican right questionably comparing themselves to the Boston protesters of 1773, genuinely contesting questions of American identity. It strikes me as a much more politically relevant debate than the street name thing, which really seems a bit silly.

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