The Question of Status in Civil War History

Several years ago a fellow Civil War historian asked people where he should pursue postgraduate work in history. Although he was the author of several fine works and was well known as an authority in his field of specialization, it still nagged him that he might want a PhD.

I asked him why he wanted that degree. His work already qualified him as a historian, and his reputation rested on his work. He and I had spoken at the same conferences and we’d gone out on the field together. It seemed to me that if he wanted the degree as some sort of self-assurance, he’d have to admit that; unless he wanted the degree as part of a shift in his occupational pursuits, it didn’t make sense for him to pursue that degree, and that those of us who evaluate historians by the work they do and not by the academic status they have could care less as to whether he had a degree. Sure, he might not be a part of academic conferences, but it isn’t as if that’s a big loss (I’ll discuss that another time); he’d also be freed of some of the nonsense academics encounter all the time, including the jealousy and contempt of some colleagues who deep down wonder why they aren’t on television, interviewed on radio, consulted for movies and documentaries, or whose books sell.

Mind you, there are benefits to professional training in history, but there are areas of inquiry and approaches to study where it is not nearly as valuable as one might think. I think I’m a better historian because I have that training given my choice of occupation, the questions I pose, and the way I approach my interests, but I was already working with primary documents when I was in prep school and writing a paper that formed the basis of my first book. I don’t think professional training would add much to the scholarship of the scholar in question, and I wonder whether there might be other ways for professional academic historians such as myself to work with people who want some professional training to assist in their research endeavors without having to commit to years of classroom work.

The above serves as a long-winded prelude to what provoked this particular post. It has to do with the complaints of some members of the blogging community and a few other folks who feel that conferences held in academic settings and run by academics are slighting them and their contributions to engaging in research activities and promoting the dissemination of their findings to a broader audience. I’ve heard these complaints several times: they echo other complaints (about which blogs get attention, for example). Oddly enough, all too often these folks sound a little bit too much like my academic colleagues who seem annoyed that some of us sell more books and get more attention than they do … so, in short, I’ve heard this before.

Frankly, I don’t understand this complaining. Is it because, for all the complaining I hear about academics from non-academics, that non-academics seek the approval and blessing of academics? Would it make various endeavors any more worthwhile if they were recognized at academic conferences? Why?

It’s quite true that some academics are snobbish and condescending. Indeed, at times this seems to exist in inverse ration to their impact on society at large. But why seek the approval of of inclusion by people you already view with a skepticism that is sometimes warranted?

Mind you, such complaining (some might call it whining) happens all the time, even among people whose names you would recognize. Some people believe they are the recognized experts on various matters, and they get irritated when other people are recognized in that role. I’ve also seen people engage in various forms of professional pettiness (as well as blatant favoritism) when it comes to constructing programs or deciding which people to include in a project. That’s the way things are, and these sentiments, behaviors, and reactions aren’t limited to certain groups.

Moreover, it appears to me that with the advent of social media these folks can bypass the academic (or institute-sponsored) conference altogether. Using cyberspace to host a virtual conference would reach far more people than the usual academic conference (C-SPAN can’t be everywhere). Popular magazines could find new ways to serve as outlets of bringing Civil War history to broader audiences. The real problem with acknowledging academics as gatekeepers is that there’s absolutely no need to do so, and that it just might be time to think out of the box and to assert one’s independent authority. It just might be a better use of one’s time and energy to explore these options and open new doors instead of complaining about which ones remain shut.

Instead of complaining that no one’s asking you to the dance, folks, hold your own dance.