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Monday, May 3, 2010

Can Academic Historians Write?

Gordon Wood, an academic historian who has had more cross-over success into "popular history" than most of his academic colleagues has a nice piece in the newsletter of the American Historical Association on the divide between academic and popular history.  The last two paragraphs are worth excerpting:

So advising academic historians that they have to write more stimulating prose if they want to enlarge their readership misses the point. It is not heavy and difficult prose that limits their readers; it is rather the subjects they choose to write about and their conception of their readership as fellow historians engaged in an accumulative science.

The problem at the present is that the monographs have become so numerous and so refined and so specialized that most academic historians have tended to throw up their hands at the possibility of synthesizing all these studies, of bringing them together in comprehensive narratives. Thus the academics have generally left narrative history writing to the nonacademic historians who unfortunately often write without much concern for or much knowledge of the extensive monographic literature that exists. If academic historians want popular narrative history that is solidly based on the monographic literature, then they will have to write it themselves.

While I agree for the most part with Wood's defense of the monographic model of academic scholarship, I also think it bears noting that a lot of the unreadability of academic history comes as much from a disinterested quest for "scientific" knowledge as a pedantic desire to establish a perceived monopoly on knowledge.  In all walks of life, knowledge is power, and trying to withhold knowledge from others is one way to establish one's authority and importance, whether it be intelligence analysts working for different parts of the US Government, lawyers creating high barriers on legal practice through bar exams, or academic historians trying to maintain their own social relevance and status.  This doesn't mean that historians don't produce "real" knowledge, but it does mean there's always some degree of self-serving professional enhancement in the way we run our credentialing mechanisms.

One comic irony of my strange career, with one foot in an academic tradition that goes back to people like Perry Miller, and another foot in the American national-security state, is that I'm exposed to two groups of people who love to use jargon, in part to separate themselves from "lay" individuals, and to help maintain a monopoly on knowledge--academics and the military.  While academics like to use jargon drawn from abstruse continental philosophy, the military loves acronyms that are sometimes both indecipherable and unpronounceable (both of these shops, btw, do good work; they just have horrible acronyms). Some of the jargon is rooted in the technical and specialized nature of the expertise in play, but that is certainly an insufficient explanation for all the jargon in use.  However, I will say this, military acronyms can sometimes at least be funny and self-mocking, while academic jargon can only be unintentionally humorous.  Alas, since I want this blog to be PG, I can't give any examples.

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