James E. McWilliams: Historians Fail As Public Intellectuals

Roundup: Historians' Take

James E. McWilliams, in the Washington Post (August 25, 2004):

[James E. McWilliams is an assistant professor of history at Texas State University at San Marcos.]

For better or worse, election years lure many members of my profession out of the ivory tower and into the real world. As political events heat up, historians are summoned to illuminate the political landscape for a wide audience that suddenly craves the insights our expertise supposedly qualifies us to deliver. Generally the appeals flatter, and generally we descend and comply.

Traditionally, the most conspicuous obstacle to our effectiveness as public intellectuals has been the idea that we're all radical lefties marching in lockstep with the Democratic platform. But this stereotype is woefully inaccurate. In reality, academics -- especially middle-aged and older ones -- are just as likely to be libertarians or conservatives as they are woolly minded liberals. In point of fact, our most skewed collective bias is something more disturbing: We're pathologically close-minded.

It's an intellectual habit that we cultivate. Starting as early as graduate school (which I recently finished), future academics are forced to pursue the most minuscule topics through needlessly esoteric methods. The ultimate goal is to become an authority on a subject matter that nobody else has explored.

The problem with this expectation is that universities churn out thousands of PhDs every year, thereby slicing the available pie of thesis possibilities into ever more abstruse slices. The typical newly minted PhD about to teach his first survey course can tell you everything there is to know about, say, gender identity among poor Dutch women in colonial New York from 1700 to 1708, but have trouble recalling who was president in 1846.

Add to this hyper-specialization the professional requirement that historians usually take one intellectual stance and promote it for the duration of their careers. The few history PhDs who manage to land full-time academic jobs quickly learn that the easiest way to become distinguished in the profession is through a lifetime of scholarly dedication to a single, defining and often very small idea -- one that usually has no bearing on contemporary events. That's precisely how to"make a contribution" -- the be-all and end-all for a serious academic. More often than not, though, that contribution is to our own job security and status within a small club rather than to a public debate badly in need of a broader historical perspective.

Adding to our professional insularity is the quiet (and usually inadvertent) disdain we harbor for"the masses" we're asked to enlighten. This is a sensitive issue. The disdain mainly manifests itself in a couple of ways. First, a liberal (slightly Marxist) suspicion of market-driven writing prevents professors who otherwise have deep sympathy with"the common folk" from writing books that appeal and relate to those very people (on this score Marx could have taught them a thing or two). Authors such as the late Stephen Ambrose and David McCullough garner little respect among professional historians, largely because they stoop to write books geared for the madding crowd and -- gasp! -- make money doing it....

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Michael Green - 8/27/2004

Professor McWilliams strikes me as both right and wrong. Too many of us adopt esoteric subjects, prove to be close-minded, and seek only to reach other members of the academy, rather than the public. But many just starting out in the academy can and do make the transition from the highly specific to the more general and synthetic. And that highly specific esoterica helps undergird those more general and synthetic work--and shows that historians can both deal with limited areas and look beyond them for broader trends and patterns. I would add that I don't share the contempt of many historians for David McCullough, although he often erects statues to his subjects. I admire Stephen Ambrose's enthusiasm for his craft, but lest we forget, he didn't exactly play by the rules we are supposed to follow.