Historiann’s published a stimulating and thoughtful response to Anthony Grafton’s call for full-throated defenses of the historical profession. Here’s the gist of her argument:
I think Grafton is correct that “[t]he real nub of the criticism is not financial but scholarly and ethical,” but I have real doubts about our profession’s ability to answer his call with a polemic or ideological defense of our work. Historians are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck. …
In many ways, I think we’re done in not because our work is “too inaccessible” or too much of an elite conversation among specialists, but rather because it’s too accessible. As I said in response to a comment in last week’s thread, “People in the natural sciences and STEM fields do this too–and no one is staking out their national meetings or complaining about the narrow, technical nature of their research. We actually publish books that the general public can get their hands on for free in their local libraries [or] via [Interlibrary Loan]–-not just narrow, technical journal articles. . . . there is an unreasonable expectation that anything in History or English be immediately transparent and useful to lay readers that I think is mistaken. We are not hobbyists building backyard rockets–we are professionals, and we need to have professional conversations with other professionals whose meaning and importance is not always transparent.”
Here’s a portion of my response:
I think you and Grafton are right that history doesn’t provide answers, only offers complexity. (That’s not the same as saying that history doesn’t effectively disprove some notions — as we must continually remind the believers in black Confederates.) That’s a difficult point to make to most lay readers, but it is essential that we make people more comfortable with uncertainty; it’s the best thing we have to offer.
I’m not quite so certain as you that our purveyance of uncertainty, or the fact that we’re professionals who need to discuss ideas with other professionals, precludes our ability to do it in a well-written and popularly-accessible way. The honest truth is that very few historians are ever taught or encouraged to write accessibly or well; if my advisor didn’t place so much stock in doing so, I would never have been told to do so at any time in my graduate coursework. That’s a failing we can remedy, but it doesn’t counter the larger point you’re making, which I think is quite well-taken.
Let the discussion continue!