The Tension Between Popular and Academic History

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.”

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4 Replies to “The Tension Between Popular and Academic History”

  1. The closing comment puts the issue succinctly: there are only two kinds of history, good and bad. There are plentry of examples of each in both the academic and non-academic camps. It would help (a little) however if popular outlets such as the History Channel actually dealt in that artifact (UFO ice truckers are not history) so that the commodity that is marketed as such actually conforms in even rough approximation to the real thing.

  2. Interestingly, I’ve had similar struggles with my own profession. There are many popular preachers who are at some level ignorant of the Bible. Some of them even have assistants doing “bible research” for them. A lot of misinformation gets spread in this way, and through websites with shaky theological foundations.

    My conclusion is, the truth will eventually win out. When someone really wants to know, they’ll find out. I’m happy to point out the errors of some of these “teachers” when people ask me, but I don’t go looking for them. When there are truly gross errors made by influential teachers, I do usually blog about it. Sometimes I address them in my sermons when it is relevant to the text. But it would be impossible to suppress all the junk that is out there and *history* (note smooth segue back to the topic at hand) shows us that that usually backfires anyway.

  3. Interesting entry. I agree. There is a place for popular history and non-academic historians. The public loves history, but with the explosion of publications, especially on the web, historians and readers have to be more source conscious than ever. Also, I am suspicious that some of the most popular historians (the ones we see on TV) don’t do much of the research for their books and articles. Instead, they hire graduate students or other researchers. If that’s the case, it’s little wonder that there have been a number of well reported instances of plagiarism among some of the “stars” of popular history and political essays.

    1. I don’t know any examples personally, but I’ve heard through the grapevine that some of the most well-known academic and non-academic historians use a cadre of people to help them. I’m uncomfortable with that practice, but aside from Ambrose and Goodwin, I don’t know of any others offhand who have run into publicly known integrity issues because of it.

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