Is Our Historians Learning? Popular, Academic, and Political History

Last Thursday, PhD student and amateur historian Rebecca Rideal published a book about London in the very busy year of 1666.[1] Written for “the general reader”, it’s entitled 1666: Plague, War, and Hellfire. As is not unusual for authors of trade books to do — when the chance presents itself — she gave an interview in a major media outlet, The Guardian, in which she was quoted as saying the following:

The time of the grand histories that are all about male figures is coming to an end…. I think people are understanding now that there were women around, too, and they were doing important things.

A handful of academic historians promptly tweeted their umbrage. Decrying narratives of great men and their doings is old hat, they pointed out. That women existed in the past will not come as news to anyone who’s pursued a PhD in the last half-century; not only are the fields of women’s and gender history well established — named-professorships-and-research-institutes established — but both the historical roles of women and the analytical power of gender have come to inform most other, more traditional fields, as well. All this, moreover, represents work on which Rideal almost certainly draws in her book. Yet here she is acting like God’s gift to women, or historians, or something. Get off my lawn!

Most academic historians, to judge unscientifically from my own Twitter feed, seem to have thought the criticism of Rideal as unfair, counterproductive, or at the very least inappropriate for Twitter. Books are fair game for criticism, but it looks bad when senior academics “punch down” at students in public — and although I imagine it was at Rideal the popular historian rather than Rideal the PhD student that they meant to strike, I’m not sure how much difference that makes since no one had read the book. The entire kerfuffle was over that one short quote. And, in context, it was just the sort of quote that one might expect in a newspaper interview with the author of a popular history, looking for a pithy and memorable way to sum up the book’s interest for a general reader — for whom, by the way, history may well still be much more obviously a matter of great men (well, Ed Balls, Nick Clegg and Hitler, at this hour) than ordinary women or households. Truly, Rideal’s was an offence taken rather than given.

A funny thing happened a few days later, across the water. Two academic historians, Fredrik Logevall and Ken Osgood, published an op-ed in the New York Times with the plaintive title “Why Did We Stop Teaching Political History?” As if transposing the recent call for a Council of Historical Advisors into a minor key, they described the historical profession’s sad decline from influence to irrelevance via the rise of fields other than traditional political history (that is, the doings of great men):

Political history — a specialization in elections and elected officials, policy and policy making, parties and party politics — was once a dominant, if not the dominant, pursuit of American historians. Many of them, in turn, made vital contributions to the political process itself….

What happened? After noting a precipitous drop numbers of jobs and specialized courses (the latter identified by course catalogue title, importantly, rather than by examining the actual content of syllabi), the authors get to the point:

America’s misadventure in Vietnam led to broad questioning of elite decision making and conventional politics, and by extension those historical narratives that merely recounted the doings of powerful men. Likewise, the movements of the 1960s and 1970s by African-Americans, Latinos, women, homosexuals and environmental activists brought a new emphasis on history from the bottom up, spotlighting the role of social movements in shaping the nation’s past.

Not only did historians’ focus change; historians themselves did. Specifically, they got less white and had fewer penises between them.

The long overdue diversification of the academy also fostered changing perspectives. As a field once dominated by middle-class white males opened its doors to women, minorities and people from working-class backgrounds, recovering the lost experiences of these groups understandably became priority No. 1.

All this was, ahem, necessary and enriching, ahem, but it came at the cost of “‘traditional’ types of history that examined the doings of governing elites”. And while the mice have taken over the orchestra, “scholarly expertise” in political history has vanished. No wonder the world is such a mess!

Only very thinly veiled behind Logevall and Osgood’s bizarre and insulting assumption that non-whites, working-class men, and women of any sort pursued careers in academic history only for the purpose of “recovering” their lost experiences (lost how? to whom?) lies an equally dubious — but revealing — series of constructions: of serious, relevant, universally necessary history as “political”; of “political history” as essentially about “the doings of powerful men”; and of both, as indeed of political power itself (one can only assume) as the natural province, enriching exceptions notwithstanding, of middle-class-or-better white males. One obvious and important reply is that “political history” means a good deal more than Logevall and Osgood appear to think, and that much of the work of the last forty or fifty years has been broadening its reach and range of connections rather than annihilating it. Another is that there is a difference between an existential “crisis”, which is what Logevall and Osgood say they see, and a loss of “dominance”, which is what they actually describe. A third is to wonder whether Rideal’s comments are as out of place as some academics might like to think.

So we have one set of academics condemning a popular historian for ignoring scholarship’s inclusiveness, and another set arguing that that inclusiveness has made scholarship irrelevant. Here to close the circle is Barbara Kay in yesterday’s National Post, championing popular history (well, Thomas Carlyle and Barbara Tuchman, at least, though one wonders what either would make of being pressed into Kay’s service) as a bastion of tradition and truth-seeking against the domination of academic scholarship by sociology (well, Marxism) and its progressive (“SocProg”) agenda.

Thomas Carlyle considered history writing the first example of man’s creative thought: “There is no tribe so rude that it has not attempted history.” The ancient Greeks thought so highly of history that they accorded it its own muse — Clio, one of Memory’s seven daughters.

Sociology cannot boast so old or distinguished a lineage. Although philosophers have studied man in society for thousands of years, it was only in the 19th century that it emerged as a “science”….

From the 1960s forward, when the New Left started calling themselves “progressives,” sociology was subsumed into the Marxist agenda as an activist tool for social engineering. As one textbook defines sociology’s mission today, it is “to alleviate human suffering and make society a better place to live.”

This is political activism, not truth-seeking.

Kay’s disjointed argument is what Logevall and Osgood’s might look like if shredded, dissolved in bile and fired from a water-pistol. In Saskatchewan. Large parts of it are so misinformed or nonsensical that they become hilarious: the sentimental and most unscientific appeal to “lineage” as a marker of intellectual value; the equation of Marx, or Marxism, with “sociology” (as defined in “one textbook”, no less), and of both with the “Sophists and Cynics of Athens 2,500 years ago”(!); the implicit reduction of academic humanities and social sciences to the purported “agenda” these motley bogeymen apparently represent; to cap it all, her praise for the book she’s reviewing — Curtis McManus’s Clio’s Bastards: Or, the Wrecking of History and the Perversion of Our Historical Consciousness — as written “to boost the spirits of deflated conservatives”. In this regard Kay inadvertently makes a pretty compelling case for academic training.

Still, it’s hard to feel too good about where we are as historians. In Kay’s screed one feels the sharp end of a deep public ignorance about the real relationship between good academic scholarship and the good popular history that invariably draws on it. Tuchman not wanting to write like an academic is a long way from Tuchman not needing to read academic work; but arguments like Kay’s ignore that distinction. Like the idiot (sorry, elected official) who suggested replacing professors with Ken Burns videos, Kay wants, wittingly or not, to replace an unending process of learning with a polished, accessible, and partial snapshot of where a branch of it once stood — perhaps, given her reference points, a very long time ago. The response to Rideal, on the other hand, shows a peculiarly similar inability on the part of academics to appreciate that, as Catherine Fletcher has very helpfully argued, a positive relationship between popular history and the professional discipline might benefit both sides — particularly in a climate where pieces as shoddy and dismissive as Kay’s find audiences. It suggests that some academic historians are perfectly willing to saw off the branch they’re sitting on, if only to prove a point that no-one in the academy doubts — and that no-one outside it cares about.


[1] Since writing this, I have been informed by Rebecca Rideal that she is a researcher and writer, and that she does not claim to be a historian either amateur or otherwise. In short, I am as guilty as the rest here in going by the Guardian story linked. Clearly I should have checked, and I am grateful for the correction and sorry for any harm caused. Inasmuch as the public hostility her Guardian interview generated still seems to me to have been predicated on a perceived invasion of professional historians’ territory and perceived mis-characterization of their work, I hope that the point being made here — that is, that this sort of gatekeeping on the part of academic historians is counterproductive — stands; the reader will judge.

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