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.