What’s the Point of Academic History?

Well, let’s see what some people say in answering that question.

Then again, these are graduate students, eager to enter the fray. 🙂


12 thoughts on “What’s the Point of Academic History?

  1. bdhamp February 26, 2014 / 7:49 am

    This excerpt is from the piece by Sam Shupe but has been stated by uncountable people over the years.

    “If anyone is to blame for the remarkable plunge of enrollment in college history courses, it is academic historians themselves. Largely isolated in the fabled “ivory tower” of the academy, historians often choose to produce and share written and spoken word geared only towards academic audiences.”

    Has this kind of statement been examined seriously for accuracy? Is it a perception or a reality? What do we mean by “historians” when we refer to the “ivory tower” in which this entity resides that never ventures into public? Is it a valid premise from which to launch this discussion … again?

    I know the debate. I know academics in general are somewhat obsessed with the question. (The fact academics discuss and debate this amongst themselves so much might itself be one of the bigger parts of the problem, but I digress. I note that no one seems really to agree on what “the problem” actually is.) I know some basis to it exists. But what I also know (anecdote alert) is that at least since my early 20s I have personally encountered many, many historians who were not just welcoming of my non-ivory-tower self but at times eager to include me in their discussions. I am not just referring to Usenet and the people I met there either. I am talking about every (*every*) history professor I had as an undergraduate, the random “celebrity” PhDs I’ve taken the time to contact personally just to introduce myself and express appreciation for or raise questions about their work.

    There are different kinds of historians, different kinds of academics of all varieties, different kinds of people and jobs and sub-specialties within jobs. Some do little else but research and/or write. Some are involved in public policy debates. Some teach more than they do anything else. Some are engage with the public because that’s what they do. Some are not because that’s not what they do. There are many kinds of categories we could assign. I have begun to suspect this premise is based in part on defining a specific category and throwing every individual who has a PhD in history into this category and then claiming there is a problem with all of them because of the philosophy of a certain subset of them.

    Perhaps I am biased. Several historians, not entirely figuratively, saved my life many years ago. They didn’t do this by pulling me off a literal cliff. They did it by being accessible and engaged *as historians* with someone who was about as far from the “ivory tower” as our use of the phrase is from its origins. But this question has been asked enough for long enough without anything new really coming of it that I am questioning whether we’re discussing the correct things.

  2. Tony February 26, 2014 / 7:49 am

    Fat stacks yo.

  3. Rob Baker February 26, 2014 / 8:31 am

    I have an interesting perspective on this; I am a graduate student eager to enter the fray, but I’m also a public school teacher.

    Academic History serves a top to bottom purpose. It furthers the understanding of the past. At the top levels, you see immediate implementation of historical theory and topics such as “holy trinity.” (Race, Class, Gender). It takes a couple of decades, but that academic history works its way into the public school system.

  4. Bob Nelson February 26, 2014 / 12:22 pm

    Seems to me one either reaches adulthood with a love of history or not, largely depending on the teachers you had in junior high, high school and college. I still remember my 7th grade history teacher, Rene Humbert, who survived the sinking of the U.S.S. “Helena” in Kula Gulf during World War II. Also Bob Lehman, Bob Smith, Dr. Robertson at NCC, Dr. Margaret Seldon (music history) and others whose names I have forgotten. They made history come alive for me. So I think it totally unfair to criticize college history professors because they are unable to light a fire in you that was never there in the first place.

    The thing I enjoy the most about academic historians (a plug here for Al Mackey’s blog) are the video presentations he publicizes. What a wonderful thing for me to listen to Ed Bearss on Vicksburg, James McPherson or Brooks Simpson on Lincoln, Jason Emerson on the madness of Mary Lincoln, David Nichols on the Dakota War of 1862 and many others. I learn something new from every single one.

    By the way, what the heck does “Fat stacks yo” mean?

    • Tony February 26, 2014 / 4:31 pm

      It’s the modern equivalent of mo money mo money mo money.

  5. Nancy Winkler February 26, 2014 / 4:03 pm

    Now a perspective from the peanut gallery:

    I managed to acquire two undergraduate degrees (from different universities) without being challenged by a history course, and it wasn’t mentioned in graduate school. History was the one subject that literally put me to sleep in high school, so I avoided it like the plague in college. My advisers signed off on my substitution of History by other humanities courses. So I graduated — twice — entered the world, married, kids, etc., and by the time I was forty I realized what was missing. I read history on my own, but not until I started auditing classes (now that I’m 60-something) in history at a nearby university did I feel I was on the right track. The class in the Civil War, for example, covered the major battles, but 75% of the class was devoted to the causes and effects of the war (though not Reconstruction in detail). Some of the students in that class were disappointed, expecting more of the military side, but I think the focus was spot on. Learning from a *real* professor is invigorating!

    But what I started out to say is that people like me really appreciate the accessibility of many of the books written by professional historians. I have access to journals, too, and though much of it is over my head (especially the mathematical parts) I still come away with a better understanding.

    BTW, I have sought out several history professors on campus. ALL were most welcoming and hospitable, even to me, an auditing student. There is professionalism in the way they interact with living people, not just their words on the page. There is no ivory tower here.

  6. Patrick Young February 27, 2014 / 6:02 am

    Patrick King’s response in the roundtable was interesting:

    “Must one take sides in the study of history? It would seem that in the practice of academic history, an author’s personal political views or preferences must be rigorously excised, cast off or repressed as if these are secrets nobody wants to hear. One of the more interesting disagreements within the Marxist historical tradition arose, more or less, from this very problem. Peter Linebaugh’s 1986 review of Perry Anderson’s work, “In the Flight Path of Perry Anderson,” counter-posed a history of political struggle to Anderson’s own outlook of detached historical judgment. Anderson, at that point, was one of the preeminent authorities of historical materialism, holding an editorial post at the New Left Review and high-ranking academic status as the author of highly respected historiographic works.

    Linebaugh’s review was launched with the purpose of reading Anderson’s most recent book on a flight from Washington DC to New Orleans, and this becomes the metaphor for Anderson’s aloof stance that cannot scan the class struggle operating below in the concrete situations of capitalist production and reproduction. For Linebaugh, the whole Marxist understanding of history becomes an abstract system in Anderson’s hands, a “virtual doctrine for and by university, metropolitan intellectuals.””

    For non-historians, an awful lot of academic history sounds like that.

    Of course a lot of academics write well and accessibly, but then I think of them as “historians.”

    • Adam February 27, 2014 / 8:13 am

      First, thanks to everybody for taking a look at the discussion! I’m the editor of Yester and hope you’ll all consider following the site…we’re trying to take a more for-the-people approach to history, which in part (and ironically) inspired this very academic conversation.

      That segues well to my reply to you, Patrick. Your last comment might have been a fun cast-off but I think it’s an interesting distinction. Most of the public historians we revere are indeed members of the academy. Is it just the accessibility of their writing (and PR skills, maybe?) that play a role in whether we think of somebody as an academic and historian?

      • Patrick Young February 27, 2014 / 9:08 pm

        Adam weote: “Is it just the accessibility of their writing (and PR skills, maybe?) that play a role in whether we think of somebody as an academic and historian?”

        It is because they write with the rest of us in mind. In my field, “mindfulness” is a key cultural value.

  7. Brad February 28, 2014 / 5:15 am

    The passage posted by Pat was, in a word, unintelligible. Good writing, no matter where it comes from, is good writing and bad writing is just bad. Unfortunately, it seems many people who have advanced degrees do not know the fundamentals of good writing. Pat and I are attorneys and if we can’t express ourselves clearly we aren’t doing an effective job for our clients. When I was starting out, someone gave me a book, which I still have, called “English for Lawyers,” which I still have. Perhaps we need a version for Academics.

    • Patrick Young February 28, 2014 / 1:47 pm

      I tell my students “If you can’t explain it, then you don’t understand it.’

  8. Thelibertylamp February 28, 2014 / 1:08 pm

    As someone who is going back to school to study art, I cannot stress how much all the required art history courses we are required to take are the foundation of art studies.

    I worship my art history professors, yes, there might be some ivory tower elements there, but what they are giving us as students is so valuable.
    I have taken classes and have gone through the complete Gardner textbook, twice! I have also taken History of Modern Art and now I am taking History of Design. I am looking forward to History of Nonwestern Art next.

    To all you history teachers out there, you don’t deserve ivory towers…you deserve GOLD ones!

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