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Eric Arnesen On Historians As Public Intellectuals: Where Does The Problem Lie?

February 25, 2008

The Historical Society publishes a bi-monthly magazine, Historically Speaking. Articles for the November/December 2007 issue are available via .pdf. A piece in that issue by THS president Eric Arnesen, titled “Historians and the Public: Premature Obituaries, Abiding Laments,” caught my attention.

Therein Professor Arnesen, who is also chair of the history department at the University of Illinois-Chicago, reflects on the death of Arthur Schlesinger and subsequent commentary.

The ground-level instigation for Arnesen’s reflections are both Sam Tanenhaus’s lament on demise of historians as public intellectuals (in the New York Times), and a subsequent HNN symposium on Tanenhaus’s article and Schlesinger in general. But Arnesen takes it further by connecting these events to Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe (Basic Books, 1987). After making these connections Arnesen asks:

“Are the lamenters correct? Are historians really no longer writing for the broader public? Have they truly buried their collective heads in the sands of academe, refusing their responsibilities, reaping professional rewards, reveling in disciplinary jargon, and otherwise impoverishing our civic culture?”

Arnesen takes the negative position, and recounts numerous historians and books that have both purposely and accidentally engaged the public. This is a welcome cataloging. [Aside: What does the Laurel Thatcher Ulrich bumper sticker say?]

Of course the situation is still not exactly rosy. Arnesen quotes Maureen Ogle on the fact that many popular history books have been “written by journalists.” Ouch. But Arnesen speculates, rightly I believe, on a—if not the—source of the problem:

“Academic prose may serve on well before a tenure committee but won’t likely prompt nonacademics to curl up with one’s tomes late into the night. Many writers ‘trained in academia are steered down a path that will preclude’ their being read widely, concludes Melvin Ely, himself the author of several popular histories. ‘Too often our graduate students think that what we, as professors, want is something that is very dense, very theoretical, which on every page self-consciously engages the existing scholarly research.’ “

Earlier in Arnesen’s piece he recounts some of the roots of that problem. This occurred in a January 2007 AHA panel, attended and reported on by Rick Shenkman (link here, Day 1 notes). For a convention best known because of its “War Resolution” and Felipe Fernandez-Armesto’s “jaywalking incident,” I’m glad that Arnesen found a more enduring remembrance. The issue was this: writing for a mass audience. Here is Arnesen’s summation with my interspersed commentary:

“An audience member suggested that graduate programs don’t teach good writing.”

TL: Generally speaking, this seems true enough to me. At least it’s not done in a positive, constructive way. Improvements come incrementally by suggestions on papers, and these suggestions come through the courses one takes in order to earn an M.A. (10 or so) or Ph.D. (20 or so courses). The problem is that you only receive consistent advice if you happen to have the same professor more than once. Then you must also respect that particular person and he/she must have clear suggestions on your writing style. But let’s continue with Arnesen’s narration:

“Jim Banner is reported to have responded that good writing is not ‘something you can probably teach’ and that a ‘great writer’ like Hofstadter did not take ‘some class’ in writing in order to develop his own style.”

TL: Bumpkis! No offense to Jim Banner, but if good writing can’t be taught, then our entire education establishment is for naught. And it’s senseless to learn the rudiments or subtleties of history as a graduate student if neither can be re-communicated in writing. I think Jim Banner is this “James M. Banner, Jr.” of the History News Network (Advisory Board, scan down) and History News Service fame. Perhaps it was a moment of exasperation at the AHA panel, or maybe Mr. Banner was playing devil’s advocate, but I fervently hope that opinion is not prominent among professors.

Arnesen finished the AHA recounting:

“Shenkman concluded that ‘by the end of the afternoon all the usual suspects had been rounded up and shot. The problem was that historians aren’t writing about subjects the general public finds interesting. Or. The problem was that textbooks turn Americans off to history. Or. Historians don’t privilege public history so historians don’t write it’ ” (bolds mine).

Well said, Rick. And thanks to Arnesen for re-presenting it. I would add to Rick’s litany this point:

“…Or. Historians in the academy whose opinions on the teaching of writing resemble what Jim Banner articulated have reneged on their duties.”

If that sentiment is truly representative, and there exists a quotient of history professors who asininely believe that good writing can’t be taught, then they should relinquish their sinecure. Let those who can—and want to—do their job actually do it. This would have the side benefit of freeing up the academy of the dead weight keeping the backlog of humanities Ph.D.s who care from gainful employment. – TL

[PS: I crossposted this at USIH, where it received several comments. – TL]

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  1. Tim, your point regarding teaching writing in grad school is quite valid. There is a stark difference between constructive and destructive criticism. Unfortunately, when one focuses on a specific type of history, they inherently limit the number of people within a given department who can give them feedback. If those select few are laissez-faire about the process or overly destructive, students' writing won't improve. One other minor point: faculty need to understand when to be most critical of students' writing. If someone comes to a prof with a paper in the early development stages where they need content feedback, too much attention to the writing can sometimes get in the way. Students have to wrestle with how they understand the material. As they get the content, the writing usually comes. Therefore, it's more productive to copy edit a later draft where the prose (should be more) polished. Naturally, this scenario changes with the individual student, teacher, and project.


  2. Lunchbox,

    In my post I was less worried about the destructive criticism of dreamkiller professors, and more about the fact that even nice, positive instructors often lack a plan for ~teaching~ good writing. Many professors can identify good writing, but few make the effort and take the time to teach it. It's because of this that some throw up their hands and claim that it can't be taught.

    – TL


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