On Civil War Academic Historians … Again

Over the past week or so I’ve seen anew the usual pattern of people drawing pernicious distinctions between academic elitist snobs and “real” historians, resting their generalizations on ignorance tempered in some cases by slight personal experience … all because of one academic historian’s use of a term in passing that was blown up way beyond recognition. I’ve even seen someone who would normally be classified as an academic in some circles run away from the label. All the ranting about intellectuals suggests it may be a bad thing to have a brain and to use it, and folks have been painting with awfully broad brushes.

I find that these squabbles tell me more about the people who fashion these strawmen characterizations than they serve as descriptions of reality. Oh, sure, there may be a tinge of truth to some of them, but the ensuing breathtaking assumptions are simply amazing: I would just as easily use an ignorant Lost Causer re-enactor or a fellow who dresses up in a uniform to deride all those folks as stupid (and in some cases bigots) if all I wanted to do was to pour gas on that fire, and having been recently typed as someone who engages in academic bashing by another academic, I could just as easily join the mob mentality present in some corners.

For a field so concerned about whether it will survive and thrive beyond this short period of commemoration, you would think that folks would concentrate on what unites people interested in the Civil War rather then spend so much time drawing dividing lines.

What strikes me as ironic is that while some non-academics take swipes at academics (and find themselves marching alongside certain members of the American public who resent higher education and deride all academics as elite effete Marxist wine-sipping intellectuals who never served and are out of touch with the real world as their critics define it), many members of the academy deride those academic historians who study the Civil War, especially military operations, as pandering to an endless and mindless public appetite for gore. I have been told by colleagues in my department that I really must get back to the world of the narrow monograph and the cutting edge article in the low-circulation world of the academic journal (this is advice that many of them find difficult to follow). Writing for a broader audience, speaking on television, and so on is simply selling out to a general public. And we won’t even talk about blogging, working with Fox News, or being contacted by Pawn Stars or the History Channel (indeed, I smile when I think of how they will react to that news).

I happen to think such whining is exactly that. It even takes place within the world of Civil War academic scholars, where some people who have focused on issues of race, class, and gender pride themselves as being more serious scholars than those who focus on politics, or, for goodness’ sake, military operations, which, of course, should be set aside in an examination of war (sarcasm rarely comes across well online). I don’t have much patience for that sort of snobbery, either. I’m amused that some political historians think I do too much military history, while some military historians think I don’t do enough and that I’m an uninformed interloper. I do what I do, period.

My circle of professional friends includes people who teach in institutions of higher education, including government institutions that focus on military history and strategic studies; people who teach in K-12; people who work for the National Park Service; people who interpret historical figures; people who are re-enactors; people who work as guides at battlefields; museum curators; and folks who bring their unvarnished enthusiasm to what they do (see Wayne Motts and Garry Adelman as prime examples) as well as great skill to what they write (hello, Gordon Rhea and Eric Wittenberg). I don’t draw lines the way others have by embracing distorting labels; I draw lines between good history and bad history, and I believe that the reason most academic historians do not reach a broader public is their own fault, especially when it comes to training recruits in the process known as graduate school. I believe that the historians who focus on race, class, and gender have something to tell me, and as a historian who studies policy and practice in the political and military worlds, I have something to teach them … and that the best Civil War history incorporates insights gathered from all these areas. I can (and have) disagreed with many of the people who are shoehorned into the categories listed above, but we don’t go to war with each other over our differences, however vigorously expressed.

So, if bashing academics is your forte, well, just keep on keeping on. Most of those who do it look foolish, ignorant, resentful, and jealous, just as do the academics (including colleagues outside my new home at Barrett, The Honors College at ASU) who get ticked off at the idea that I do things that people are interested in. As for me, I’m really happy to do what I do and to work with the people I work with as we together try to help everyone attain a better and deeper understanding of what happened in the United States during the era of the Civil War and Reconstruction.

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23 thoughts on “On Civil War Academic Historians … Again

  1. Let me take the complaint in a slightly different but related direction; the “academic historians” or as I prefer in some case to call them “court historians” no matter what the subject matter (with basically two exceptions) run away from any hint that anything evil, bad, or negative in American history EVER had anything to do with the C-word-Conspiracy. Two exceptions: the Italian Mafia and the Nazis-that is about it. Scratch an academic historian and you will find a credulous individual with a Ph.d who swallows (or says he does) the Warren Commission psyop-fairy tale on the assassination of President Kennedy-and the official story of every war and disaster since that time.

    American politicians, military leaders, industrialists, financiers, never do anything EVIL–they just make “mistakes” and “errors”.

      • Brooks, you are the product of the Liberal educational system gone awry, as well as a purveyor of pure stupidity. I am dumber for having read anything you have written! There’s wasted time I will never get back!!

        • It’s hard to believe that you are dumber than before. Now watch as you waste more time as you stew over why. Glad to be of service.

          So in this case I’m simply the relayer of pure stupidity … by letting your comment go through.

          • I could care less what you think. It’s just a shame that the history revisionist garbage you produce and push onto the unsuspecting tourist or student is now what they believe is “real” history. Like I’ve always said, I can call you an a$$hole and that is one thing but if I put it in print, people will believe that you are an a$$hole. Take that how ever you like, genius… You’ll probably censor this message which is what Liberals supposedly fight against yet they apply to every aspect of their lives. I would only stew if the comment had come from a respectable historian, therefore I won’t. Now censor away…..

            • “Rich” gets dumber by the hour, or so it appears, from his own admission. Thanks for reading.

              And say hello to your associates at the New Jersey Department of Transportation, where a copy of this is going. I’m sure your superiors will approve of this use of your e-mail access.

              As I said, you seem to get dumber by the minute.

    • The problem with most conspiracy theories is they attempt to prove a conclusion from evidence rather than gathering all the evidence and drawing a conclusion from the facts (what academics are taught to do).

      It also doesn’t help there seem to be few people who believing a conspiracy; too many of them are trying to argue everything in history is some grand conspiracy by the 0.1% playing the rest of us like their puppets. And when the pro-conspiracy folks end up as eye-rolling as Infowars they’re doing themselves no favors.

  2. So very glad you take the time to run this blogsite! I’m sure it’s demanding and time consuming, and as a professor you have lots of other responsibilities competing for your attention. As a layperson I learn so much from both academic and non-academic enthusiasts, and respect all who devote serious study to the Civil War. Those who denigrate academic historians simply are ignorant of the years of undergraduate, graduate and doctoral studies that go into a degree, plus the lifelong continuing education and research obligations that come with a professorship. My hat is off to all of you who reach out to the rest of us.

  3. Unfortunately, and for reasons I do not pretend to understand beyond obvious insecurity, there are too many in academia who are willing to dismiss those of their peers (1) who concentrate in such fields as military history or paleontology, or (2) who believe in presenting their thoughts and ideas in an accessible style. .

  4. Brooks
    Interesting first post

    It is obvious, but perhaps worth restating this simple truth: Folks who can be described as “Academic Civil War Historians” stand at the intersection of two groups of people:
    (1) Folks who think about and write about the Civil War, which includes the academics
    (2) Folks who are “academics.” That is, people who spend a portion of their time doing research and writing in their chosen field (biology, chemistry, sociology, economics, history etc etc)

    In the Civil War universe, some portion of those folks spend some portion of their time giving lectures (sometimes for money), doing interviews, appearing on TV, writing textbooks, writing essays or books aimed at a “general audience.” The opportunities to do such things is largely contingent on the topics the historian writes about. Not all topics are equally marketable.

    Meanwhile, that same person – in the academic universe – is (perhaps) engaged in doing precisely what academics in other fields do: they/we do research and write articles or books that speak to unanswered questions. The goal is to contribute to a collective increase in what we know about the selected topics.

  5. Oops. I accidentally must have hit “send,” although I suppose that was a good breaking point.

    My larger point is that folks who are not academic historians should not be criticized for not knowing what motivates “academic historians.” It is not their job to know what we do for a living. [Today I watched the end of the Zimmerman trial, and I came away sure that I could have done a better job than the defense attorney and the prosecutor. Yet, I have never been to law school and never been in a court room. We tend to judge.]

    But I think it is a huge mistake for folks in the “general community” to judge academic historians based on whether their books and articles reach a wide audience. And it is a huge mistake to believe that that is the goal. Personally, I never write using words and terms that your readers would not understand (Unlike, for instance, many folks in the hard sciences.] But when I write I write with different audiences in mind. And even if I am writing in a way that COULD speak to a very general audience, I don’t presume that that audience – that market – is interested in what I am writing about. The serious market for Civil War books is really only a small sliver of the array of topics that serious scholars write about. That is simply the way it is.

    In that sense, most academic Civil War Historians, like most biologists or mathematicians, are intentionally engaged in a conversation with fellow scholars and students of history. Our goal, in those writings, is to contribute to an accumulation of knowledge and interpretation. And, one hopes, those evolving interpretations will find their way into textbooks, public lectures, and living histories. But the collective work of offering the interpretation, doing the research, making the argument, convincing one’s peers and so on, is not necessarily the stuff that will get snatched up at the bookstore at Gettysburg.

    We academic Civil War historians really do have our feet in many camps, and we write and speak in different ways to different audiences. I would of course be thrilled if every non-specialist out there read (and purchased) everything I have written, but the truth is that that is not the objective that drives the decisions of most academics, even Civil War historians. We are, I think, trying to contribute to a collective understanding of the past.

  6. Thanks for the post. I appreciate those professors who engage the public. I like the dynamism of this blog. It is very connected to it’s readers. I am very happy that this blog, as well as your C-Span appearances give us a chance to learn. I think that a lot of us have been inspired to study the Civil War era more extensively because of stuff you have brought up here.

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  8. some people who have focused on issues of race, class, and gender pride themselves as being more serious scholars than those who focus on politics, or, for goodness’ sake, military operations, which, of course, should be set aside in an examination of war (sarcasm rarely comes across well online).

    Ah yes, race, class and gender, the “Holy Trinity” of History. Brooks, have you read John Lynn’s “The Embattled Future of Academic Military History,” Journal of Military History? He touches on some of the same topics that you touch on in regards to modern historical analysis, and those that prefer the “Holy Trinity,” over politics and military ops. It’s interesting, given what Lynn points out in his article, the differences between you and say Kevin Levin’s approach to the Civil War.

  9. Medievalists get this all the time. So do Classicists. Here’s my set of differentiations, for what they are worth:

    1) A real historian is someone who uses and understands historical method to analyze historical evidence and present a well-argued narrative supported by that evidence and not contradicted by other evidence. This is not something exclusive to academic historians, BUT the training and resources* necessary to doing this well are hard to get outside of postgraduate programs.

    2) People who know lots and lots of minute details about historical evidence, and can recite those details, but do not use historical methods/historical thinking are on the sliding scale of ‘History Buff-to-Antiquarian’. These folks tend to know a lot more about their narrow, specific fields than do ‘real historians’. In fact, without their expertise, a lot of our work would be harder. I’m thinking here about numismatists, Civil War re-enactors who can identify uniforms from buttons or a particular kind of dye, etc.

    3) The two are not mutually exclusive; in fact, there is often some crossover, especially in fields where re-enactment is popular. For the Middle Ages, there’s definitely overlap between academic historians (especially the military historians) and the SCA, for example. Both need training and expertise (at least at the higher end of the HB-A spectrum). A degree is not required for someone to be a real historian. And some trained historians aren’t necessarily stunning examples of the profession. But if someone is making a living at an academic institution by being a historian, they are more likely to have greater knowledge of their field. (Having said that, there are some differences in the ways modernists — including Americanists — and pre-Modernists and non-Westernists approach history, but overall, the AHA’s new guidelines cover those differences). An excellent example of a non-historian doing expert work that isn’t really history, but shows lots of expertise, has been in the news recently: a hairdresser in Boston, IIRC, has been recreating Roman hairstyles, and has published in (I think) the Journal of Classical Studies. Her research has definitely contributed to the field, but it’s antiquarian research, not history.

    Part of the problem is that we live in a culture where there’s an impression that ‘anybody can do history’ because our schools focus on learning a narrative, and documentaries reinforce narratives that have changed dramatically in the last 25-30 years (although Ken Burns is an exception, as far as I can tell). That just isn’t true. I’ll go out on a limb here and say it’s probably easier to access the source materials if the topic is the US Civil War, and I doubt there are the issues that medievalists and classicists have with trying to explain that our training includes being able to not just read the sources in their original languages, but also to critically assess written sources as a material objects, representations of particular genres of writing, authenticity (which is itself an entire question — can you tell a copy from a forgery if it isn’t an original?), etc.

    Shorter version: Even if the materials are more accessible, if they aren’t read and interpreted using sound methodology, then the result isn’t real history. Even if the research shows real expertise and knowledge of the details of the field, it isn’t real history. BUT that doesn’t mean it’s not historical. Antiquarian expertise is important and vital and needs to be respected for what it is. The two fields are complementary, not in competition. They ask and answer different questions, and require different skill sets (which are sometimes, but not always, combined).

  10. Pingback: Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 1 | The Historic Struggle

  11. Pingback: Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians | The Historic Struggle

  12. Pingback: Re-enactors vs Historians vs Historians: Part 2 | The Historic Struggle

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