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Great Challenge From Richard White

November 13, 2006

Richard White, current president of the Organization of American Historians, offered a great assessment of the perils and promise of historians as public intellectuals in the latest OAH Newsletter. Although I am by no means his target audience – he’s aiming for those who actually have a large platform – I hope this site never devolves into mere punditry. While the occasional political commentary is sometimes necessary, chastise me if I do it too much! – TL

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4 Comments
  1. Anonymous permalink

    But that's the point, isn't it? He wasn't knocking punditry. He was lauding punditry as the point of history (because, after all, of what use is history if its fruits aren't given to a wider audience?). He was chastising lazy punditry – the formation and repetition of an opinion without cold, hard facts to back it up. Seems the real problem he's lamenting is that we've forgotten the difference.
    -Alexis

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  2. Alexis: I agree that Professor White chastised lazy punditry in his piece, and that we historians have forgotten the difference between informed commentary and punditry. But I also believe he was saying that punditry is bad, by definition, when it comes from historians. Here's what Prof. White said in his second to the last paragraph:

    “The best public interventions by scholars are when the stars align and a matter of urgent public interest corresponds to topics to which we have been giving considerable thought and research. Then we have a responsibility to speak out no matter how unpopular our positions might be. The worst moments are when we become pundits—experts on everything, masters of the superficial, purveyors of opinion for opinion’s sake.”

    You can see that Prof. White even invented a phrase, “public interventions,” to avoid using the term 'pundit' in relation to historians. – TL

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  3. Anonymous permalink

    Doh! Right you are. I glossed over his use of the word at the bottom. I myself was thinking of 'pundit' in its original sense – a learned scholar – as opposed to what the word is becoming – a talking head.

    -Alexis

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  4. No problem! We're friendly here – or at least I and the folks who have posted so far are. Perhaps you've hit on something: should we take Prof. White to task for not hearkening us back to the original sense of the word rather than its current connotation? – TL

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