Historians, Public Intellectuals in Waiting

When stupidity and mendaciousness rule the roost it is hard not to think that something has gone wrong with education. The last year — probably much longer, but it was about a year ago that this piece appeared, and I’ve seen several like it since — has seen a lot of accusations being hurled along that line. Latent in the mistaken idea that Trump voters were categorically uneducated (or at least, not academically educated), explicit in hand-wringing over the failure of university-based intellectuals to break beyond their alleged bubbles, it has been turned inward by historians seeing in Brexit and Trump a failure to communicate historical knowledge. As the piece linked at the top claims, academics could change the world, if only they had the will. Specifically, the will to aim megaphones at the public rather than discursive footnotes at their peers.

There’s a lot that’s odd, and some things that are flat-out wrong, about this line of thinking. The basic premises that (a) academics write only for academic journals, and that (b) no one reads academic journals, are both — to put it academically — problematic. Actually, the first isn’t so much problematic as simply incorrect. It is possible to write journal articles and also engage with other audiences in other ways; in fact, although I recognize that my home field of history may skew the sample somewhat, I can’t think of a peer who doesn’t. Books; op-eds; magazine pieces; blogs — all are pretty standard stuff, not necessarily required of faculty members per se, and usually not remunerated or rewarded by institutions, but hardly rare for all that. And without mentioning still other forms of public engagement, it is surely worth pointing out that, at least outside the extremely rarefied world of research institutes, academics communicate their work to large numbers of students on a daily or weekly basis. Few of these hearers are destined for the academic world and not many more for political or social elites; they are, in a real sense, our most immediate public.

As for the idea that no one reads academic work, a few points: First, the claim itself — though repeating it brings great joy to a certain kind of commentator — is misleading. It is true that most articles take a long time to show up in online citation counts, and that many never do; but that’s not the same as saying that no one reads them. But second, and much more importantly, the thrust of the claim in this context — that writing journal articles and addressing the public are opposed goals — is dangerous nonsense. Why is it nonsense? Because what, other than academic research, is supposed to justify the public engagement of academic experts? What exactly is the content of academics’ contribution to public discourse supposed to be, if not the distillation of research? To put it bluntly: an “expert” whose work is entirely composed of public pronouncements, without a substantial basis of scholarly research to rest them on — research that can by its nature only be fully written up and vetted in some “academic” form or other — is not an expert. He is a charlatan. Why dangerous? Because while it is true that few universities incentivize public engagement by altering tenure requirements, say, or teaching loads, university administrations are only too happy to treat citation counts as synonyms for quality and public exposure of their brand as a proxy for scholarly substance — and to allocate resources accordingly. Treating the substance of what academics do as inimical to the public reach they might have invites shoddy work and the elevation of academic branding over genuine expertise. Is the world in 2017 really short of crappy hot takes?

Stepping back from the specifics of these arguments, though, what I find most peculiar is the starting point that the problem of influence is simply a problem of academics’ will (with, perhaps, a dash of administrative incentivization). To construct “the public” — or, for that matter, the government — as an empty vessel awaiting our outpouring of knowledge is deeply ironic, given that this is exactly how we are no longer supposed to see our own students. Does public engagement dispense with questions of pedagogy? What exactly are the forms of engagement being proposed, and how do they differ from what is already on offer? But this view is also, in the age of alt-factual politics and the assault on academic freedom and academic institutions, deeply naive. (To be fair, the piece at the top predates that particular variety of bullshit.) Public discourse about history is not a vacuum awaiting our content; it’s a battleground in which scholars must and already do compete with powerful and deep-rooted ideological and political foes, not only over the shape of popular historical narratives but also over the value of historical study itself — and, close to home, over the existence and orientation of the institutions that make its pursuit possible. We are not starting from zero. Everything, one might say, has a history.

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