Blogs > Cliopatria > Simon Schama I Love You

Feb 23, 2004 3:23 pm

Simon Schama I Love You

For saying this.

The only caveat I have is that the existence of a broadly communicative, publically engaged rhetoric of history is dependent upon the existence of a body of much more meticulous scholarship. Schama couldn't have written Citizens if there hadn't been a large historiography to write about, and the same goes for any of the successful public-sphere historians of recent years.

In that respect, we can't simply press a button and revert to being Macaulay. There are things to know that require specialized forms of inquiry and research, and historiographies that have depth and detail to them that require respectful treatment.

There is a value to the monograph, and we should not be too careful to throw the baby with the bathwater. One of the functions of academic research institutions should be to subsidize the work that does not and cannot seek a public audience,

But Schama and Ferguson and others are right that this is now what drives historical research and historical writing completely, that this is the standard by which the relative merit of historical knowledge is judged within the academy, by the smallness of its professionalized craft rather than the breadth of its communicative ambitions.

I do not accept that this is an inevitable consequence of graduate training, either. We could train historians to write well, to seek audiences outside the academy, to stretch their powers of persuasion. Richard Slotkin, for example, once imaginatively suggested that doctoral students in history should all be required to write one work of historical fiction. You could add on to that one op-ed essay, one article for a popular magazine on history, one radio interview with an NPR show about their research, and one scholarly journal article that aims to pick a historically informed fight in the public sphere. The training need not be purely gestural: it could be a literal, concretized pedagogy. But it would take recognizing that what Schama asks for is not an optional extra, but part and parcel of the basic ambitions of academic history.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/25/2004

I wonder if part of the problem is that few academic historians have thought of what the ideal popular history would be, in detail.

Think about it: we can describe the solid monograph in its various guises. Most of us know what it consists of. Often we can recognize it even in fields where we are not expert.

The same is not true for popular history. We can identify the solid popular work, but most of us do so in the I-know-it-when-I see-it way of recognizing great art or pornography. But we don't have a firm conception of it in the way that we have one of the monograph.

I put it to you: beyond good prose and honest scholarship, what makes a solid popular history? How do you identify one?

Jonathan Dresner - 2/24/2004

Ironically, the explosion of administrators might be useful in pushing greater respect for communicative endeavors: the current fad of "real-world" application, and "work-related" skills could work in our favor, if we can get them to push for inclusion of public discourse/popular culture productivity in evaluation materials. Then, of course, we're going to get into the problem of judging quality, but that's a matter for another day.

Timothy James Burke - 2/24/2004

Yeah. Come on over to Crooked Timber or Invisible Adjunct and add that point. This is one of the keys to my argument--that the normalized systems in academia that recognize or acknowledge value do not differentially value work that has communicative ambitions--in fact, in some cases, quite the opposite. The bookstores may be full of history, but the academy doesn't recognize ending up on those bookshelves as a goal worth supporting--more as an epiphenomenon which doesn't concern them in the construction of internal systems of value.

Jonathan Dresner - 2/23/2004

You're preaching to the choir here: who would be on HNN but historians who believe in the relevance of history and the importance of communication with a wider audience?

But until Tenure/Promotion/Retention committees begin to take public intellectual life seriously, there's no reason for graduate schools to teach it. In fact, you could argue that a graduate school which instilled in its students an interest and facility with public communication would be doing its students a serious disservice, as such activities seem to be viewed as being evidence of lack of "substantive" productivity.

That reminds me, I have work to do.

Oscar Chamberlain - 2/23/2004

At one level, I agree with Schama (and I certainly agree with Tim).

However, it is all too easy to distort in the name of interest. It's been a long time since I read Schama's "Citizens," but if memory serves, Schama jetisoned serious consideration of the interests (and the actions) of the masses of people in and out of Paris on the flimsiest of pretexts.

At the time I concluded that they did not interest him; so he paid just enough attention to them so that he could get them out of the story he wanted to tell.

And that is the danger of popular history. The monograph model sometimes breaks the camel's back of a good story, it's true. But the popular model sometimes solves this by dumping some valuable truths out on the road.

David Lion Salmanson - 2/23/2004

I have a copy of an old Bill Cronon syllabus and one of the requirements was to do a piece for The Atlantic, Harper's, New Yorker or other such magazine.

Ralph E. Luker - 2/23/2004

Tim, I'm delighted that you picked up on the piece about Schama's comments about what we do. I had thought about posting about the piece myself, but you've pushed his remarks well beyond what he said, suggesting that graduate education ought to require the development of a diverse portfolio of work. Such a requirement would surely need to be thought out very carefully. I have serious doubt about wanting to read, much less write, a work of historical fiction by me. It could be a very interesting exercise, challenging us on the side of historical imagination where we may be weakest.