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