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Too Much Fretting Over ‘America’s Worst Historians’ …?

August 21, 2012

Are we facing a crisis of historical writing? That’s partly what Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg, two American history professors at the Louisiana State University suggest in a recent thoughtful piece for Salon. Looking back to the recent scandal surrounding TV presenter and writer Fareed Zakaria – who was shamed for plagiarizing analysis from a New Yorker piece on the history of gun control by Jill Lepore for an article of his own – Burstein and Isenberg argue that the Zakaria case serves as a touchstone for a broader problem of originality and journalistic history in the United States today.

Again and again in recent years, the duo argues, we’ve seen cases of not-quite-historians becoming famous as ‘historians’, before it turns out that their work was … well, less than accurate. Aside from Zakaria (who had a PhD in Government from Harvard), they mention the case of Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose The Fitzgeralds and the Kennedys, first seemed like a fine work of American history. Yet as The Weekly Standard exposed and University of Georgia historian Peter Hoffer later detailed in his own Past Imperfect, note Burstein and Isenberg, the book was marred by multiple cases of plagiarism form lesser-known authors. Still, the Pulitzer Prize the book won (which speaks to the quality of reading done by Pulitzer judges) stands, and Kearns Goodwin ‘has been welcomed back with open arms by the TV punditocracy.’

My own submission for the Pulitzer Prize in History this year

In other cases, as with that of the famous biographer and writer David McCullough, the problem is less straight-up plagiarism than that of image. McCullough, the LSU historians note,

formerly of Sports Illustrated, is routinely enshrined as “a national treasure” and “America’s greatest living historian.” But nothing he writes is given real credibility by any careful historian because history is grounded in evidence, and McCullough isn’t familiar with more than a smattering of the secondary literature on most subjects he tackles. He hires a younger researcher (the Goodwin method) to read for him and tell him what’s important. If he doesn’t read in depth the books and articles he lists in his very thorough bibliography, which someone else presumably compiled, how honest is he being with the reader?

None of this matters, though, because of McCullough’s jovial personality. He seems like what most people imagine or want a historian to look like, so it’s no problem if he hasn’t actually done the work.

Burstein and Isenberg definitely get some points right in their piece. They highlight the extent to which the image-based culture of television and the Internet has undermined, or certainly transformed at the least, a culture of public intellectuals in the United States. Look back several decades, and few expected people like Irving Kristol, Daniel Bell, or – to take a more public figure – US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, to be icons not just of the mind but also fashion and sex. If anything, the culture of the former New York Intellectuals was a hyper-aggressive, often misogynistic, crock pot that would have been utterly ill-suited for ‘marketing.’ Moynihan’s intellectualism came less across as a brand or something used to sell an electoral product, and part of a larger curiosity that rubbed off on colleagues over the course of a career measured in decades. And whatever the faults of these men, people like Bell or Moynihan were the actual ones writing the books, reports, and legislation they wrote.

Fast forward to today, and pessimists will find much to rejoice in. Many of the faces who get promoted on television today represent a different model from the 1960s or 1970s public intellectual. Think about writers like Jonah Lehrer, Malcolm Gladwell, or, to a lesser extent, David Brooks. Both of the former cultivated massively successful public personae by dressing well (think slim-fit suits, short or, in Gladwell’s case, idiosyncratic hair, and slightly nerdy glasses), honing a ‘pitch’ for the world of corporate retreats and TED conferences that their books appealed to, and cranking out article after article after book. Lehrer had barely cracked 30, for example, when his recent Imagine was his third full book. Glossed, tanned, and bespoke, this new genre of public intellectual is ready made for television.

Before you worry about being as creative, funny, or as insightful as Tina Fey, make sure to get your ‘librarian cute’ or ‘intellectual’ look down

Yet these new public intellectuals served a very different purpose from those in 1960s New York, much less the Central Europe of the 1920s or 1980s. Far from writing about power and élites (C. Wright Mills), the economy (John Kenneth Galbraith and Bell), or politics beyond the level of the day-to-day (Bell again, or look to Daniel Boorstin), the trio of Lehrer, Gladwell, and Brooks have recently gained fame by become popularizers of researchers’ content – in their case, of neuroscientists. There’s nothing to fault that particular line of writing. It’s a talent I don’t possess, and I’m not one to browse neuroscience journals for the latest exciting abstract. But I wonder what it says about America’s culture of public discussion when we’ve shifted from The End of Ideology to compendiums of anecdotes about which nation’s pilots make the best decisions under emergency conditions – and what it means for your business.

At the same time, Isenberg and Burstein’s piece lacks for imagination about what historians could do to defend the nation’s precious bodily fluids against this tidal wave of pseudo public intellectuals. They are awfully specific on negative prescriptions. ‘You will not find a careful historian citing the work of someone whose face is on TV above the made-up title “Presidential Historian”‘, they write. That sounds reasonable enough to me. It goes on: ‘You will not find a painstaking scholar dressing up his or her material to make it more familiar than it should be.’ Who could disagree with that? In the overall presentation we get, historians are supposed to spend years writing PhDs, turning them into books, and not indulging in bad behavior … but then what? The focus on doing the same old, same old, and not becoming like *those* bad boys smoking behind the gym, but who still, somehow, get all the girls, leaves us more or less where we started as a community.

A more imaginative charge for what historians should be doing in both their own self-development and the development of students might take a more proactive tack. One anonymous ‘Post Doc’ hits on several compelling points in the reader comments section. She notes that ‘we as a profession have not cultivated an informed, critical readership’, and that ‘our undergraduate courses are designed so that students place information from textbooks in their short-term memories; they do not develop the skills they need to read a secondary work to identify and evaluate the thesis.’

Given the increasing availability and popularity of online lectures (whether recorded and stored by institutional instructors or, potentially, distributed from licensers like Coursera), this sounds like a case where more of an emphasis on a ‘flipped classroom’ (where students are expected to watch lectures at home and engage in more active learning on-site) could make a lot of sense not just in terms of short-term pedagogy, but in terms of cultivating a more methodologically literate audience for history. In the United States today, at least when I took AP US History, we apparently felt comfortable enough with high school seniors to have them write so-called ‘Document Based Questions’ that forced them to use a set of primary source texts to make an argument about US history. Given the vastly greater resources on American history (to say nothing of the treasures of non-American history in the special collections that grad students like myself travel to glamorous locations to use), why not encourage students to make use of primary sources – ideally of their own choosing – as soon as possible?

More specifically, classes, at least those aspiring to something beyond the most basic bare minimum of factual content, could try to dispense with as much of the facts as possible in ‘flipped’ lectures, while students might be encouraged to develop a greater sense of ownership over the course by using primary sources to curate their own project: an Omeka site, a radio drama, GIS projects, historical cooking, museum exhibitions, you name it. (These are all, incidentally, exercises which give you many more transferable skills than writing an answer to a canned question for History 101.)

There’s one obvious objection to this: the students won’t know what to make of the materials. That might be the case, but having seen people who were STEM undergrads dabble at Oxford with taught and research humanities courses, I’ve seen beautiful things happen. Struggling when you don’t find precisely that document you’re looking for that makes your case can make you realize how serious plagiarism – or worse, document forgery – is. Non-historians getting a taste of the methodology or what a successful trip to Special Collections might constitute might have one of those days where they’re still not quite sure what their argument is going to be, should be, or ‘what they’re looking for.

But here’s the point: it’s at that moment that they may then realize that’s the kind of struggle that ‘professional historians’ face all of the time. That simple discovery of the tension that makes history both a social science (because it depends on actual data, usually in the form of documents but increasingly other data) and a humanistic science (because it’s also about savvy readings of said data) might go a long way towards de-mystifying the aura that inevitably gathers up around figures like Kearns Goodwin or McCullough. Ideally, after such a baptism, it would no longer matter to them whether this or that list of celebrities testified that Kearns Goodwin ‘really was a person of good character’ – that might be true, but the proof is in the pudding of the research.

Now, it is true that I wouldn’t necessarily expect someone without a lot of research experience to set the world on fire during their first go at transforming primary sources into secondary analysis. And a good chunk of people trying their hand at primary source research – like many of my friends who tried it for the first time at Oxford – probably wouldn’t even like it. But I’d still count that as a success. Students might even better appreciate the difference between journo-history (the kind that involves paying the grad student to do your research and reading) and real history (the kind they were briefly exposed with), just as most of us intuitively grasp the difference between science journalism and the actual research that figures like Gladwell and Lehrer resort(ed) to so frequently in their practice of the former.

What’s my takeaway? I shy away from the genteel posture that Burstein and Isenberg take in their piece. ‘We in the history business wish we could take out a restraining order on the big-budget popularizers of history’, they write towards the top of their article. I agree, but note the verb they use: ‘wish.’ Part of the challenge, I would argue, that ‘professional historians’ face in the 21st century is taking a more active stance than just wishing – whether it’s acts of shaming or distance towards the plagiarizers, or the education of a better generation of history consumers that I’ve highlighted above.

And I don’t think it should be anathema that part of outmaneuvering journalist-historians might involve finding ways to engage them on their own platforms. That might mean getting more savvy than the current generation of history professors is at using platforms like blogs, podcasts, radio interviews, or even television to engage with audiences. That means younger historians will have more on their plate than their advisors did – welcome to managing your online ‘brand’ at the same time that you’re producing actual work separate from your blog or small pieces – but it’s also potentially liberating. Figures like Zakaria or Lehrer got deflated quickly because it turned out that the ratio of their ‘brand’, ‘platform’, or image to their actual product was way out of whack. The kind of historians, or simply American intellectuals, who will be best placed to spar with our new tele-mandarins will not be those who train themselves purely for the minster, but are also ready to do some public intellectual bruising – but on totally different platforms than the Bells, Boorstins, or Kristols that we started idolizing.

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