in PUBLIC HUMANITIES
Who Says You are a Historian?
Wow! I am thrilled about the response to my last post about living history practitioners. It seems I’ve hit a rich vein of potential discussions. I will be getting back to that subject in my next post but right now I’m thinking more about some of the stories that have been making news lately involving historians or, to be clearer, people who claim to be historians.
On August 19th, Andrew Berstein and Nancy Isenberg wrote an article for Salon.com and took writers like Fareed Zakaria, Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCollough to task for deigning to write history without the proper training. They make some very cogent points about how history, as practiced by a trained professional, is very different from the history published by journalists or others and the works created by these untrained writers are at best inadequate and at worst a distortion of the facts.
While, for the most part I whole-heartedly agree with their argument, though I would have liked them propose some solutions to the problems they identify. In their article they state, “History Ph.D. candidates spend years researching and writing a dissertation, taking several years more to fashion it into the book that will earn them tenure.” Perhaps I’m an idealist (though to be honest I think I’m way too cynical for that label) but shouldn’t writing history do more than earn an individual tenure (i.e. job security) at a university? The vast majority of these tenure-gaining books never come close to making it on the radar of even the most dedicated historical lay-reader. Why is that?
A lot of the reason for it is the readability of these books. For the most part historians write for other historians not the public. While this model works quite well for the scientific community for example, this is not the same situation in history. The public claims its history regardless of how well it has been researched. When one’s perception of the origins and traditions of the past can impact how one votes in an election or how one interacts with their community, there is a larger responsibility at stake.
Berstein and Isenberg point out that writers of history-themed books often pick topics which tend to resonate with the general public: people like Lincoln, Jefferson, the Kennedys or any of the founding fathers for example. Then they proceed to over-simplify, plagiarize or even twist the facts to meet an agenda, like David Barton did in his book on Jefferson, Bill O’Reilly did in his book on Lincoln and or Doris Kearns Goodwin did in her book about the Kennedys. Historian Jill Lapore wrote about the co-opting of American history, particularly the founding fathers, by the Tea Party.
The challenge that we have as public historians is that we are the ones on the front lines. We deal with the product of these popular history books – misinformed people. When someone invests the money to buy or download a book and what’s more valuable, their time, to read it, they don’t take kindly to being told that what they just read is bunk, derivative or some sort of propaganda. When we plan exhibits and programs we are to keep our audience in mind. We need to be aware of current trends in popular culture, including and I think especially popular history. We don’t necessarily need to try and debunk every bit of misinformation out there but we need to understand where our public is coming from, where their knowledge level is and what is affecting their world-view at this point in time. (How many of you have heard a visitor or volunteer wax nostalgic about the past as if there were a time when there wasn’t strife, life wasn’t complicated and everyone was happy with their lot?)
This fall we are starting a book club at our museum. Our first book is Betsy Ross and the Making of America by Marla Miller. We are fortunate to be able to bring Dr. Miller here for a lecture in November so we thought it would be good to have a group read her book prior to the program. The goal of the club is more than simply learning about Betsy Ross but to help the participants think critically about the history they read. We don’t want to be overly pedantic but we will talk a little about sources, a little about the neat nuggets of information that can be found in endnotes and a little about how to judge if an author is drawing conclusions based on documentation. Of course, as with most book clubs we’ll also have wine and snacks.