It’s no secret that academic historians look askance at non-academics who write history. That tension became apparent this week when Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, professors of history at LSU, wrote a piece for Salon that calls journalists “America’s worst historians.” Their argument is summarized early on:
Frankly, we in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history (many of them trained in journalism) who pontificate with great flair and happily take credit over the airwaves for possessing great insight into the past. Journalists are good at journalism – we wouldn’t suggest sending off historians to be foreign correspondents. But journalists aren’t equipped to make sense of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Burstein and Isenberg’s piece prompted some criticism. Kevin Levin at Civil War Memory criticized them for, among other things, being bitter and elitist:
Throughout the essay the authors blur the distinction between popularity, plagiarism, and the difficulty of writing analytical history to the point where it’s not even clear to the reader what they are so upset about. What is clear is that they believe the only people who should write history are historians with a PhD.
Other bloggers have taken them to task as well. David Silbey at The Edge of the American West “graded” their essay, asking several questions, including these:
2. You claim to be talking about journalists, but, as you note, your two lead examples (Doris Kearns Goodwin and Fareed Zakaria) are both political science Ph.Ds. Are you critiquing journalism or political science?
3. You cite Peter Hoffer’s Past Imperfect to criticize Doris Kearns Goodwins [sic]. How does Hoffer’s discussion of Joseph Ellis in the same book affect your argument? How does Jon Wiener’s approach in Historians in Trouble differ from Hoffer’s?
4. In your comment “David McCullough, formerly of Sports Illustrated,” what is the connection to SI intended to evoke?
6. Do the examples of Michael Bellesiles, Stephen Ambrose, Ellis, Niall Ferguson, and Newt Gingrich change your argument about the effect of doing a history dissertation? (in Gingrich’s case, the affect [sic] of it as well).
This debate is occurring at the same time that Niall Ferguson, professor of history at Harvard, is also being criticized for his “factually challenged” critique of President Obama, and David Barton’s reputation is reeling from historians’ assessment of his book on Thomas Jefferson.
One of the key parts of this conversation is the question Eric Foner asked in one of my favorite essays, “Who Owns History?” Can non-academics write history that academics can and should respect? I think the answer is “yes,” but for academic historians, the question is one of quality.
Personally, I think non-academics can write history, even good history. It’s dangerous to generalize about any group, and this case is no different. There are enough examples of both academic and non-academic cases of misconduct and integrity issues that neither side has grounds to points fingers. Having said that, I agree that the academic peer review process is one safeguard that, when it works, avoids some of the problems being discussed now. I’ve only published with a university press, and I’ve had several book proposals evaluated by academic presses. The process has been rigorous, and I’ve been asked to rewrite proposals to address interpretive and coverage problems and questions every time, sometimes more than once. I’ve evaluated manuscripts for academic journals and presses, giving substantive feedback, and I’ve also evaluated one manuscript for a trade press. This review process resulted in much stronger scholarship every time.
Ultimately, the author is responsible for what s/he writes. Identifying problematic scholarship, whatever the source, is important to safeguarding the preservation of human knowledge. Edited to add: John Fea put it quite succinctly: “any journalist [or non-academic historian] who wants to practice history must still abide by historical rules of evidence and interpretation.”