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Arts and Letters

Unpopular chic.

If a book is conceived with only historiography in mind — with academic disciplinary debates and research agendas dictating the focus and the form — it’s unlikely to succeed in the public realm. If it’s conceived without historiography in mind, it’s unlikely to succeed as scholarship. So, how do we develop what we might call a Goldilocks approach to historiography?” In a very intriguing two-part article for Slate, David Greenberg of Rutgers University makes the case for historians breaking out of the Ivory Tower.

My friends and colleagues here have heard me rant about this on many opportunities — For all the talk of transnationalism and blurring borders in the field right now, the border between academia and popular history remains rigorously guarded by historians who too often equate accessibility with poor scholarship and second-rate thinking. On many occasions, we’ve been told by visiting scholars — including some very big names — that, for better or worse, we’re fated to do “history-professor history” that will have “no effect” on how Americans see their past.

In short, I find this line of thinking very disquieting. Frankly, writing American history tomes that only a rarefied community of scholars will “get” seems to me a rather sad way to spend a life in the discipline. Whatsmore, it’s no accident that right-wing interpretations of the past, be they neo-con or free-market fundamentalism, for example, tend to gain a wider currency in today’s political climate than left-wing ones do. It’s partly because academics on the right seem to have less qualm about popularizing their ideas for a mass audience (and they’ve got more institutions to disseminate them, but that’s another story.)

I find something profoundly irritating about scholars who claim that “ordinary people” will never understand their ideas, and then go on to complain about the nation’s right-wing drift. While it may be hubris to think that any one scholar’s work will make all that much of a difference, it’s still a worthier goal, to my mind, than composing a work of great theoretical insight that’s completely inscrutable to all but those academic elites similarly ordained in the historical arts.

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