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The Difference Between History Written By Professionals And Professional Histories

April 18, 2008

I’m an alumnus of the University of Missouri-Columbia. When I was student there (B.S. 94), in the College of Arts and Sciences, I heard a great deal about the university’s School of Journalism. At the time—and currently still, I believe—it was widely recognized as the top institution of its kind in the country. Many of my brightest and most motivated classmates were J-School students. Indeed, two of my oldest and best friends today, who reside in the Chicago area, are J-School alumni.

But the J-School’s reputation also bred contempt. Some of its students were arrogant and smug. As is the case in situations like this, other students suffered from “excellence-fatigue-by-contact.” In other words, we tired of hearing about the J-School’s greatness from our classmates—and the university itself.

So it was with a mildly jaundiced eye that I read this yesterday. I use the term “mildly” because it’s been a long time since I suffered from J-School-excellence-fatigue: I had forgotten about those feelings. I confess my old sickness, however, to hopefully distance myself from bias. I feared that I might be carrying forward resentments, or jealousy, in the comments I made at Inside Higher Ed on Professor Steve Weinberg‘s review of his own book.

But I’m reasonably confident that my comments weren’t a sign of a sickness coming out of remission. Rather, I see my criticisms of his thinking as a product of the nine years I spent in graduate school learning how to be a professional historian. I gained a great deal of respect, in that time, for the philosophical thinking and practical skills needed to research and write a good history. Knowledge of the limits of my profession fed my feelings about the review.

Having the history of education as one of my doctoral subject fields, moreover, brought me into contact with a number of institutional histories like Professor Weinberg’s. In many cases, perhaps 70-80 percent of the time, those institutional histories were written by men like Professor Weinberg: interested alums, school lovers, and retired faculty or staff. I therefore came to see most institutional histories as hybrid works—equal parts memoir, autobiography, commemoration, history, and speculation. Very few are purely history. Those rare works are quite valuable.

I think the important thing to remember is that, in the case of institutional histories, there are those written by professionals, and those that are professional histories. While Professor Weinberg is a well-established and respected professional journalist, his work simply can not be a candid history of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism. He may have done the best that he could, but a candid, reasonably objective institutional history can only be written by an empathetic but critical third party. And hopefully that third party will be professional historian. – TL

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