Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | January 6, 2011

Historians Under Attack: A Response to Anthony Grafton

I want to thank Historiann for alerting me to incoming AHA President Anthony Grafton’s provocative essay in Perspectives, “History Under Attack“. Grafton uses his inaugural presidential column to tackle recent challenges to the legitimacy of the historical profession. Historiann’s own forthcoming response to the essay promises to be a great read, as are the comments in her initial post. As my own response quickly grew beyond a comment, though, I thought it best to post it here instead.

Grafton’s essay reminds me of a similar piece written by then-AHA President Gabrielle Spiegel in January 2008. Like Grafton, Spiegel used her first Perspectives column to address the questions surrounding history’s legitimacy as an academic discipline. In my response to Spiegel’s piece, I noted her courage in acknowledging that many of the arguments historians make for their profession don’t adequately respond to the charges leveled against academic history from outside its walls. Ultimately, however, I felt that her own argument for history as a profession – that historical knowledge provides for a certain “cultural competency” in a globalizing world – didn’t meet that challenge either.

The strengths of Grafton’s piece, for its part, are its sense of energy and gusto – as Historiann notes, Grafton seems to be “spoiling for a fight” – and its openness to ideas from other scholars. Grafton doesn’t simply publish his essay and wait for a ripple effect; he actively encourages “other historians [to] explore these problems and propose solutions everywhere from Perspectives on History to the blogosphere.” (I wouldn’t expect anything different from the first AHA President to be an avid blog reader and commenter!) Grafton continues:

We need to mobilize the formal collective intellect of our discipline, across institutions and generations, to defend and explain our enterprises. The process will be costly. It will involve arguments among ourselves, and time taken from research and teaching, and frustration of many kinds. But we need to try.

Those are stirring words, and I applaud Grafton for writing them. In doing so, however, I want to suggest that we tweak the definition of the problem a bit: it is not history, but historians, who are under attack. Grafton’s right to point out that no one criticizes engineers or life scientists for being too technical or not relevant enough to the nation’s needs, but neither is history like other fields in the humanities, such as cultural studies or classics, that many non-academics feel shouldn’t exist at all. Indeed, many of our most vociferous critics believe passionately in the importance of history. You’d be hard-pressed to find a Tea Partier, for instance, who doesn’t profess undying admiration for the Founding Fathers or blast liberals for “getting history wrong.” Notwithstanding the glaring inaccuracies in such a view, this position represents a sincere desire on the part of many right-wing critics to promote the study of history (even if only of their preferred types of history).

Instead, history is in an almost unique position among academic disciplines: people value what we do but believe that amateurs do it better. You won’t find ordinary Americans arguing that a backyard chemist is more likely to cure cancer than a professor of chemistry; similarly, the people who criticize cultural studies don’t argue that they could write better books about Foucault than can the professionals. The appalling truth, however, is that people are more likely to trust the popular histories they pick up at Barnes & Noble, or the historical propaganda they see on Glenn Beck, than they are to value a book by an academic historian. Indeed, most lay readers don’t even know the difference. The question they ask is not, “Why study history?” but, “Why study history?” Why can’t you just understand history without making a formal study of it?

What this suggests, I think, is that we need to shift our focus from defending historical inquiry as a worthwhile endeavor – a position, after all, with which the vast majority of Americans already agree – toward defending why we do it better than Glenn Beck or the popular press. Part of this task involves simply making lay readers aware of the advantages of academic scholarship. We need to explain, to an audience obsessed with knowing “the facts,” that peer-reviewed books are vastly more accurate and trustworthy than popular ones. We need to point out that new breakthroughs in historical knowledge and understanding are almost always made by academics, and that popularizers can’t disseminate this knowledge unless the professors discover it for them first. We need to indicate the importance of argument and analysis, and how they transform a collection of data points into a coherent picture of an era or a phenomenon (or even of an individual). We need to suggest that professional historians have a unique method that is teachable and applicable to other areas of life. Whatever arguments we make, the key is that we need to make a case for historians as a profession, rather than history as a discipline. Otherwise, we’re left with the intolerable state of affairs we’re in today, in which people come to believe that popularizers are the only true historians and that academics are the ones preaching politics rather than practicing rigorous scholarship.

In my response to Spiegel’s essay two years ago, I reached a different conclusion: that it was historians’ fault for not writing books ordinary Americans wanted to read. In retrospect, that was overly facile; less than a year into graduate school, I failed to recognize the gulf between professional history, based around argument and analysis, and popular history, based around narrative and interesting facts. That essay contained a kernel of truth, though: part of the problem is that historians aren’t rewarded by the profession for making efforts to reach a wider public. Former AHA President Laurel Thatcher Ulrich explained the reason to me last year: popular ephemera such as op-eds, blogs, and the like aren’t really research or teaching, and while they do count as service, service can’t be allowed to make or break a historian’s career; otherwise, we’d be awarding tenure to people just for serving on a bunch of committees. The fact is that the current criteria for hiring, review, tenure, and promotion don’t encourage historians “to mobilize the formal collective intellect of our discipline, across institutions and generations, to defend and explain our enterprises,” as Grafton puts it.

Here’s where I think the AHA can be the most helpful. As I’ve argued before, the organization would do historians a great service if it would issue tenure and promotion guidelines that encourage consideration of outreach as a fourth evaluative criterion, in addition to teaching, research, and service. Outreach would be a comprehensive category that would include the production of written ephemera, appearance as a TV talking head, production of particularly readable historical manuscripts, publication of books through popular presses, service in public history, and other related endeavors. In terms of its weight in the tenure and promotion process, outreach would count for less than research and teaching, but more than service. A scholar who’s excellent at outreach but whose research is spurious still wouldn’t achieve tenure under this system, but, unlike with service, it would be possible (though difficult) at certain institutions to make a tenure or promotion case based primarily on outreach. Someone whose monograph was on the bubble of worthiness but who’d written a number of op-eds, or whose book was well-written or was contributing to a national conversation, might be more likely tol make tenure or promotion.

As I see it, the situation is reasonably straightforward: we need to recognize that (departmental funding distributions to the contrary) we are competing with historical popularizers rather than with chemists, and we need to reward our members for taking the fight to the popularizers’ home turf. If we get better as a profession at doing those things, I see little to fear either from our critics or from future budgeting woes.

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  1. We actually read his history of the The Footnote in 601 this semester. It was equally full of interesting insights into the historical profession.

  2. I tweeted this, and it’s on a pace to be my most successful tweet ever. By and large, I agree with what you (and Grafton) have said.

    But I have to quibble – you know me – with “You won’t find ordinary Americans arguing that a backyard chemist is more likely to cure cancer than a professor of chemistry.” In fact, you can find millions of Americans who do just that, supporting pseudoscience over evidence-based medicine, mistaking anecdotes for data and extrapolating universals from incidents, and choosing quack alternatives to proven procedures. The vaccine refusal movement alone … ’nuff said.

    That said, I do think that historians are in a unique position to help ourselves and the idea that expertise and evidence matter, through our teaching and through new research into the history of science, medicine and the environment. We may never be able to eliminate mindless nationalism or political opportunism, but we can support a literate, thinking population.

  3. That’s very kind of you — you’ve also made this the blog’s most popular day, by a factor of three! Much appreciated.

    I partially agree with your quibble. It’s true that many people don’t trust scientists, just as they don’t trust academic historians. But when they challenge climate change scientists or vaccine-promoting doctors, they generally either use alternative scientists or doctors (even if somewhat discredited) or they discount scientific evidence altogether. Rarely, in my experience, do they suggest that they or their friends are actually better scientists than the scientists. It’s a minor difference, but a real one.

    Perhaps a more similar profession to history is English, or at least its creative writing subfield. People think popular writers do creative writing better than those in the academy, as book sales reflect. I wonder whether English has faced these challenges, or whether the discipline as a whole is more interested now in critical theory than in defending creative writing as an academic endeavor.

  4. Previous comment was @Jonathan.

    Victoria: yeah, Grafton’s a cool guy. I’ve been looking forward to his taking the helm of the AHA, and I wasn’t disappointed by this first essay.

  5. Is it possible for a non-member of AHA to get a copy of Grafton’s address?

  6. At the first link in the post, Historiann has excerpted the most important parts. I think the full address will be available soon without login at the second link in the post. They tend to release columns in Perspectives as soon as the print edition is mailed, which should be within a day or two.

  7. […] affects the resistance to history that Anthony Grafton describes in his recent article, “History Under Attack.” Blame shifting and avoidance. Taking the easy way out instead of “working the […]

  8. In considering your question to me at Nixonara, I touched on some related elements in “Not working the steps,” at

  9. Maarja, thanks very much for the link and the kind words! I’ve responded over there.

  10. […] Saturday morning! And I have time to write both about Jeremy Young’s essay, “Historians Under Attack,” as well as former Nixon foundation director John H. […]

  11. Jeremy, I had some time on Saturday morning to blog about some of my experiences with amateur historians and to reflect on some of the challenges we face in convincing them of the value of historians, as well as history. You and Jonathan make some excellent points. But as an historian, I’ve really run into some @headdesk moments. See “Confronting Error,” at

    As you can see, some of these things show up most strikingly in dealing with some of former presidents’ associates.

  12. Sorry, that shoud have been #headdesk, of course.

  13. […] important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.  (H/t to Jeremy Young on this point.)  A professor of mine once explained to me that this is why History is, in his […]

  14. Popular historians and journalists who write broad, history-like narratives, and academic research historians, aren’t enemies or rivals but scholars who have chosen to concentrate their efforts on different skill sets within the historical profession. This is like fighting over whether your left or right hand is the “true” hand.

    Almost every academic historian was “hooked” on history along the way by some popular history they read that captured their interest and imagination. Almost every popular historian constructs a narrative for laymen by synthesizing vast numbers of narrowly focused monographs compiled tirelessly by academic historians.Ideally, popular historians should also possess strong research and analytical skills. Ideally, academic historians should be able to communicate a narrative effectively through elegant prose and persuasive rhetoric.

    There are historians around who can do all of these things admirably well who should be held up as models

  15. Mark, you’re right that the relationship can be viewed as symbiotic, but it stops being symbiotic when the people who control the purse strings decide that popular historians are doing all the work themselves and that academic historians should be starved financially. Also, it’s a symbiosis that’s unnecessary; popular historians don’t write good narratives because we can’t, they write them because we’re too lazy to, or not trained well enough to. They have way too much of the market right now, and we need to go into that market and take some of it back, as a way of preserving our profession and making it more accessible to lay readers.

  16. […] unfortunately, is behind a subscription wall.) In his column, Grafton provides a synopsis of my and Historiannn’s comments on the recent and continuing attacks on the historical profession. […]

  17. […] They do not value or reward efforts to reach that audience (you can see some of that argument here).  My own view is that when it comes to evaluating a work of history, it’s the quality of […]

  18. […] best blog post of 2011. The only one that fits the bill comes from early January: Historians under Attack: A Response to Anthony Grafton. This one got me noticed in Grafton’s February column in Perspectives. There may not be a […]

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