Posted by: Jeremy C. Young | January 13, 2011

Historiann’s Response to Grafton

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!

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  1. A TA friend of mine (and I deeply wish I remember who, so I could credit the quote properly) once said that “In history, there are no right answers. But there are wrong ones.”

    Your reply to Historiann made me think of that again.

  2. And it’s a great comment! The same is true in the sciences, incidentally…except that their “non-right” answers have a much higher degree of certainty than ours do.

  3. I know you’re not going to enter public service, Jeremy, despite my once telling you that we feds need people such as you! But the environment is very different for the one you’re debating–and so are our reactions. In working on the history book I shortly will finish — it should be out some time this year — I am mindful of the fact that not everyone who will pick it up reads as much history as we do. That affects how I write. And its just not that.

    As the federal personnel standards make clear, government historians deal with various customers at the policy making levels of government. Look at pages 15-17 at to see what we do. And yeah, the 6 figure salary isn’t bad, I can tell you that. Even living in a relatively expensive city such as Washington, DC.

    When you’re a federal historian, as I’ve been for 21 years (after previously working 14 years at NARA), whether you’re advising polilcy makers or writing briefing papers or books, you have to use accessible language. It’s a given. There’s too much at stake for misunderstandings to occur. And you definitely learn to be mission oriented and to set ego aside.

    As to the public, if you read enough political blogs, and especially their comments pages, you come to understand that there are many people who hate historians “just because.” As an academic, you don’t even get your foot in the door. Because you’re dismissed as an elitist hater of the United States, or whatever. There’s no getting around it, although I rarely see historians discuss this. Perhaps they don’t read as many political blogs as I do. Of course, we feds are called “bureaucrats.” So somebody is going to stereotype you, whether you go into public service, as I did, or into academe.

    Understanding hate and fear is critical in some positions. I think that is what most historians fail to understand about the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). You overlook what power players are afraid of at your peril. You have to be aware of what they fear and how that affects their reactions (threats, intimidation, forced firings, etc.) And to be prepared to stand up to them or work around them. That a NARA official was punished for telling a senior executive at the National Archives that he wouldn’t lie to Congress any more for him is one of the most sobering stories from my time there. My writing to the Department of Justice about possible witness intimidation of some of my colleagues was frightening, too, but I had to do it.

    Sure, starting a blog is scary for me. But I have to do it for historian Tim Naftali, who heads the Nixon Presidential Library as a NARA official. He deserves my protection (I can’t tell you all the reasons why but trust me, he’s in a serious battle.) His academic colleagues can’t speak out for him the way I can (although it would be nice if they at least paid some attention to the news stories coming out of Yorba Linda). Accessible language? Small potatoes compared to what Tim is facing–but not unimportant on the scale at which Grafton is looking at these issues, of course.

  4. […] another column in Perspectives this month in which he cites in particular the discussions here and at Jeremy’s blog last month about his January American Historical Association’s President’s column.  […]

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