Open Season on Ph.D.s?

So it would seem, although there’s more to it than that. Still

Savas Poll

For the record, I answered “no.”

This current round in the sniping against academics comes courtesy of a debate over a recent historian’s study of the Gettysburg campaign meeting another discussion over several new books in Civil War history. The result’s been a bit muddled.

Let’s look for a moment at the Gettysburg discussion, which I’ll summarize. Several people who work at Gettysburg and who have written very able and interesting books on various aspects of the battle and the battlefield took exception to a recent one-volume history of the entire campaign. Fair enough … historians argue all the time, and Gettysburg’s the cause of plenty of those arguments among historians of the American Civil War, regardless of their degree status. But the discussion soon degenerated into an exercise in degree-bashing for most folks, capped by the declaration: “The fact is, everyone knows the LBG [Licensed Battlefield Guide] force is way more knowledgeable about the battle than any of these scholars….”

Maybe, although during my last trip to Gettysburg I heard some LBGs make factual slips on Little Round Top. But I would never generalize from that, because I know that many of them are in fact very knowledgeable about the events of July 1, 2, and 3, 1863. I would think it wiser not to make any generalizations at all. I know that when I offered to have someone in the discussion set forth the errors in this volume for all to see on this blog, I had no takers.

So much for the claim that “in the scholarship field, if you don’t have a PhD after your name, academia tends to ignore your criticisms.” Here was an opportunity offered by a Ph.D. to have someone present those criticisms … and people passed on it.

It figured that a NPS employee refused to join the chorus, as he calmly pointed out that no one was flawless and everyone could learn from casting a broader intellectual net.

Now, much of this is to be expected. Gettysburg remains contested ground, and one way in which it is contested is between the various people who study the battle. Some of us build bridges and realize how much others can tell us, but others build walls and fences. I just wish people would not rush into needless generalizations that make cooperation and collaboration even more difficult.

That brings us to the discussion over newly-released books. This fracas began when Kevin Levin (who does not have a Ph.D.) highlighted the claims made in advertising about a new book on John Bell Hood. That drew return fire, and continued here and here. Several issues cropped up, including the fact that the author was a distant relative of John Bell Hood (I think that’s irrelevant in assessing the book as scholarship), but it was left to the book’s publisher, Ted Savas, to declare:

Still, because this book challenges establishment writers (not all of whom are professional historians), I am expecting blow back from the elites who look down on independent publishing and authors who don’t hold a Ph.D. (Spoiler alert: Generally speaking, many who hold doctorates can’t write to save their lives, but they do have damn good editors who make them read like Faulkner. Some day I will post about that.)

Now we were off to the races again. Kevin responded:

What I find most troubling, however, by Ted’s response is the reckless use of my post as somehow evidence of a broader turf war between academics (the elites) and popular writers. The implication is that I somehow fall into the former category, which is absurd. I am so tired of these overly simplistic and “silly” distinctions that ultimately only work to highlight the insecurities of those who insist on pointing them out.

The battle is joined, as folks simply raced by Kevin’s statement: “Again, I was simply questioning the marketing of the book and not the content. That some people do not understand the difference is simply astounding.” However, Kevin opened a different door when he announced: “I just read Amazon’s reader feedback. I wouldn’t go so far as to call them reviews. For the most part all they do is repeat the overall theme of the jacket description. I look forward to reading a real review that actually examines specific claims as well as his methodology.”

Ah … what is a “real” review? In that phrase Ted Savas saw another opening. Referring to one of those Amazon reviews, he speculated:

Or is this simply an opinion tossed up by one of the great unwashed because it did not originate from one of the holy esteemed publications of academia or flow from one who pontificates armed with a Ph.D.?  (The publishing stories I could share with you gleaned behind the scenes on this score would keep you from wasting some of your money on a college education.)

I note that this is an instance where you can’t say that you can’t detect sarcasm in online communication.

Ted was more direct here.

I’ll be very honest. I don’t like these sort of discussions. I think they divide people and waste a lot of time. They depend upon the erection of strawmen and “others,” and they are problematic. For example, I know many of Ted’s authors personally, and I know Ted virtually, as they say (and I know he isn’t talking about me). Having been chided for academic-bashing last March, I might just be an exception, but I don’t know whether there’s a rule. On the other hand, I do know of some academics who do look down their nose at non-academics, although, just as with several of the commenters mentioned above, I believe that to name names will simply make things explode (so much for my reported appetite for huge hit counts based on mindless controversy). Those conversations remain private. However, I think that to generalize about any one group in this discussion is a rather risky business prone to exaggeration, distortion, and eventually more mean divisiveness.

One note: I venture that Wiley Sword, a main target of Hood”s admirers and the Hood book, is not a PhD holder. I know that in his book on Grant and Civil War history, Frank Varney (who has a PhD) criticizes several people who don’t have PhDs (such as Bruce Catton and Geoffrey Perret) as well as some authors who have PhDs (again, I don’t see his few references to my work as attacks, but more on that at a later date). Ted’s published both books. So you can see how these generalizations become problematic rather quickly.

Here’s my question: why do we need to have this argument? Different types of books have different objectives and are aimed at different audiences. If something’s not your cup of tea, fine, but that in itself does not make it bad scholarship. And it’s not as if Civil War historians who happen to have a Ph.D. don’t face derision from some of their peers.  As I’ve said before, all I’m concerned with is the presentation of good history. The source does not concern me. It may help explain perspectives, strengths, and weaknesses, but that’s all.

It’s August. Chill.

30 thoughts on “Open Season on Ph.D.s?

  1. John Foskett August 12, 2013 / 6:55 am

    In part, this all seems to involve a bizarre need to monopolize knowledge. The fact that one holds a PhD doesn’t mean that the holder’s grasp of a historical event is “right” to the exclusion of others’,, any more than does the fact that one has mastered a test which requires him to know whether Co. A of the 1st Minnesota “dressed to the left”. The concept is analogous to the recent discussion between JD Petruzzi and Tom Carhart in which Carhart ultimately defended his (highly suspect) theory about Lee’s “real plan” at Gettysburg by pointing out that, unlike JD, Carhart had served in the military. That’s not monopolized knowledge – it’s gross insecurity.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 12:47 pm

      And it also just doesn’t make sense. I think warfare’s changed a bit in the last 150 years.

      • John Foskett August 12, 2013 / 2:50 pm

        Aye, and that point was made in a thread on another blogsite regarding Mr. Carhart’s assertion. Let’s put it this way – the question was asked whether Tom has ever commanded cavalry in 19th century combat because otherwise his “training” is hardly more relevant than the questioner’s.

  2. Patrick Young August 12, 2013 / 7:01 am

    I have a Juris Doctor and I teach Immigration Law at Hofstra Law School. Last semester I assigned a book by Dan Kesselbrenner, an outstanding authority in Immigration Law and Criminal Issues. He is neither a PhD nor a JD, but he is an excellent scholar.

    When I read about the Civil War, I examine the academic credential of all authors, but I only consider that as one factor. I check footnotes, weigh the sources used, and evaluate the author against her colleagues.

    A “Civil War historian” at a university may only have one or two academic colleagues at the same institution with similar interests. I look at the courses such academics teach, and often see that only a quarter of their courses are on the war era. They are as likely to be teaching a survey course on the first half of American history or the entire 19th Century as to teach a specialized Civil War course. However, they are also more likely to be exposed by non-Civil War colleagues to new developments in historical analysis.

    NPS staff at battlefields or LBGs may only study the Civil War, or their particular geographic location. They are in daily contact with other students of the war and give regular presentations on the war based on many hours of research. In some ways, they are in a real community of scholars, particularly if they are in an area with a high concentration of similar students.

    I think that both routes to expertise can lead to valuable insights into the war, and both can produce dreck.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 7:05 am

      Precisely. The irony here is that saying that LBGs (for example) are authorities on the battle because they are LBGs is as much an argument from authority as saying that PhDs are an authority because they hold PhDs. There’s a reverse snobbery/arrogance implicit in the discussion.

      It’s the work that counts … or should count.

  3. rortensie August 12, 2013 / 7:06 am

    I have mixed feelings on this and I think it boils down basically to the research conducted on the book. Did the author present the subject in the correct light, use the correct sources (not Wikipedia and other internet sources – see a current work on Area 51 which if I could I would be able to fully debunk many of the issues with the work), and the work flow. Like you have stated, I have read some works by PhD that I sit and scratch my head and say, “This individual has a PhD?” In my last position I reviewed roughly six works a year at one Air Force headquarters with two of those individuals being PhD’s, one of which was published. The one published individual COULD NOT WRITE, let alone fine documents to support his writing.

    However, there are quite a few Civil War works out on the open market that are worth nothing more than fodder for the bottom of a parakeet cage.

  4. Patrick Young August 12, 2013 / 8:09 am

    By the way, in the poll, shouldn’t the third choice be spelled “shul?”

  5. Jerry Desko August 12, 2013 / 8:20 am

    Tis but thy name that is my enemy;
    Thou art thyself, though not a Ph.D.
    What’s Ph.D.? it is nor hand, nor foot,
    Nor arm, nor face, nor any other part
    Belonging to a man. O, be some other name!
    What’s in a name? that which we call a rose
    By any other name would smell as sweet;
    So Brooks would, were he not Brooks call’d,
    Retain that dear perfection which he owes
    Without that title. Brooks, doff thy name,
    And for that name which is no part of thee
    Take all myself.

    My apologies to William Shakespeare.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 8:27 am

      This is very impressive coming from a Giants fan. Then again, I would not even expect it from a Cowboys fan.

      • Jerry Desko August 12, 2013 / 8:41 am

        I owe it all to John Mortimer’s character, Horace Rumpole.

  6. Chuck August 12, 2013 / 8:31 am

    I, as does Mr. Young, check the author’s credentials, sources, footnotes, and jacket blurbs to see who recommends the book. A PhD is not a factor, although it probably does carry some latent power. There are plenty of non-PhD Civil War researchers and authors I consider to be “scholars,” including Kevin Levin and Jeffrey Wert.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 8:39 am

      I tend to discount blurbs, although when I see blurbs from non-experts who are names and nothing more, I have my doubts. By their very nature blurbs are endorsements. Sometimes I have good reason to believe the blurber has not read the manuscript.

      • John Foskett August 12, 2013 / 9:58 am

        I’d wager it’s more than “sometimes”. I’ll admit to a bit of an extreme position on blurbs. I apply what in the law is known as a “rebuttable presumption” that a blurb is generated out of an acquaintance with the author or a desire to keep the publisher happy and that actually reading the manuscript is not remotely a sine qua non. There are, of course, cases where the presumption is rebutted (and certainly when the blurb is yanked from an actual review) but when I see a busy author humping another book I’m generally skeptical that it’s been more than skimmed.

        • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 10:49 am

          The politics of blurbing are very interesting. So are the politics of reviewing. The odds are that blurbs on paperbacks published after the cloth version has been out a while are from reviews, even if the blurb is carefully culled. More on this another time.

          • John Foskett August 12, 2013 / 2:45 pm

            Good point on the followup softcovers. I look forward to your insights in this sphere. Right now I recall one review in a pretty reputable publication in which the reviewer hammered what could easily have been deemed “competition” for the reviewer’s own book, with not much in the way of what I would consider an adequate disclaimer.

          • rortensie August 12, 2013 / 5:25 pm

            I’ve often wondered about that. I picked up the hardback of a book I reviewed pre-press and noticed that it had blurbs on it. However, if they wanted to be totally honest, it should have put on their “editors sucked, author should stick to writing for the newspaper.” But the reviews on Amazon are all 5-star….

  7. Thelibertylamp August 12, 2013 / 9:23 am

    I was going to get a PhD to defer my student loans…but I doubt anyone will take me anymore seriously…

  8. Mark August 12, 2013 / 9:37 am

    I agree that whether one has a Ph.D. or not doesn’t matter in this. On the other hand, regarding Ph.D.’s generally, overproduction generally does lead to the need to thin the herd so the “open season” metaphor has some attraction.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 9:47 am

      That’s a different (and serious) issue that has widespread ramifications in the academy and (I believe) affects undergraduate education.

      • Mark August 12, 2013 / 10:18 am

        Agreed. And I think undergraduate education is in for massive changes very soon.

      • Al Mackey August 12, 2013 / 10:38 am

        I know at least one Ph.D. who could be “thinned out.” 🙂

  9. Ned August 12, 2013 / 9:52 am

    Seems to me that this (the poll, the divisive blog postings, etc.) is about a publisher being provocative to sell his books.

    • Brooks D. Simpson August 12, 2013 / 12:50 pm

      I believe Ted’s sincere in his frustration and irritation. He also has a good idea on how to market books through controversy (or lively and engaged discussion).

    • rortensie August 12, 2013 / 5:28 pm

      I’m constantly getting messages and emails from a certain aviation author who wants me to “buy more of his books” and to forward/recommend others to buy his books. He puts out at least a book a year and depends on the income but I’m not going to be his agent or salesman. Plus, when he sends me a book, I consider our “favors” filled.

  10. Buck Buchanan August 13, 2013 / 7:10 pm

    Some of the best scholarship I have ever read and used was written by Will Greene and Gordon Rhea, neither of whom hold a PhD but both of whom have provided great contributions to the study of the ACW.

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