In his review of Ron Chernow’s new biography of Grant, George Will tossed out a bold, fresh take on academic historians and why we are terrible.
Chernow’s large readership (and the successes of such non-academic historians as Rick Atkinson, Richard Brookhiser, David McCullough, Nathaniel Philbrick, Jon Meacham, Erik Larson and others) raises a question: Why are so many academic historians comparatively little read? Here is a hint from the menu of presentations at the 2017 meeting of the Organization of American Historians: The titles of 30 included some permutation of the word “circulation” (e.g., “Circulating/Constructing Heterosexuality,” “Circulating Suicide as Social Criticism,” “Circulating Tourism Imaginaries From Below”). Obscurantism enveloped in opacity is the academics’ way of assigning themselves status as members of a closed clerisy indulging in linguistic fads. Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, who is impatient with academics who are vain about being unintelligible, confesses himself mystified by the “circulating” jargon. This speaks well of him.
To quote Seth Meyers, there are about 54 things wrong with that statement, but let’s just do three:
- As many historians have pointed out, the theme of the conference was “Circulation.” Conferences – regardless of discipline – are professional meetings of experts in a field. The papers given there are different from books. Do you think paper titles at STEM conferences use non-specialized language? “Cancer: Let’s Fix It!” “Sewage Treatment Systems I Have Known.”
- None of the historians of merit or historical subjects of merit he can name are women or people of color. That should be a big red flag.
- He seems unconcerned with the cost of accessing most academic work, and the profits reaped not by the scholars who produce it but by sprawling corporations who charge everyone to read it.
Turns out, George Will isn’t concerned at all about whether academics are writing for the public or whether that work is accessible and affordable or whether marginalized academic voices are being heard by the general public. If he were concerned with those things, he’d have written a different article. Or, as we might write in the margins of a paper: “Your evidence here seems to be supporting an argument that’s different from what you stated in your introduction. Which is it?”
One suspects that George Will just doesn’t like most of the historical work being done by scholars. Every writer of history he mentions is a white man, every historical figure he mentions is an extremely famous white man. His column suggests he thinks academic historians deserve to remain unread since they’re not writing it the way he wants: biographies of great (white) men, the only ones who can really tell us about the past.
George Will is recycling the same old garbage he’s fed us before but under a different name, and in doing so, participating in a tradition only available to the sorts of historians he respects. The rest of us will be here researching new things and making new arguments and adding to our knowledge of our complicated past. If he wants to have a conversation about how to make that work more accessible to the public, he’s welcome to talk to actual academic historians about it. We’re really frustrated and have lots of ideas. Maybe Sean Wilentz can give him some names.