Last Saturday afternoon, I arrived at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport in a great mood. I’d spent two days at the annual conference of the Society for U.S. Intellectual History. It’s perhaps my favorite academic gathering: the people are friendly, the papers always prove fascinating, and the plenary sessions highlight promising new ideas in the field.
I left the conference feeling optimistic about the future of the historical profession.
Then, passing an airport bookstore, I saw a large display featuring this book:
In the interest of full disclosure, let me note that I haven’t read any of Kilmeade’s books, nor do I plan to do so. But plenty of folks are picking up the latest history book by the Fox & Friends host. Today, Andrew Jackson and the Miracle of New Orleans is the #19 book on Amazon.
Kilmeade’s former Fox News colleague, Bill O’Reilly, has staked his professional identity on his status as “America’s Bestselling Historian” since he was fired from that network earlier this year.
Ordinarily, thoughts of these folks writing history would inspire only mild annoyance. But the stature enjoyed by non-professional historians took on a new urgency on Monday. White House Chief-of-Staff John Kelly praised Confederate General Robert E. Lee, and he blamed the civil war on “the lack of an ability to compromise.”
Kelly’s interpretation has been sufficiently discredited elsewhere that I need not belabor the point.
But what bears repeating is the fact that the popularity of history books written by non-historians — and the corresponding lack of popularity of professional scholarship — contributes to the existence of a culture where large numbers of people accept Kelly’s proposition.
So what is to be done?
While it’s perhaps unfair to make historians responsible for a larger cultural problem by which many Americans have a tough time dealing with facts, it strikes me that there’s more we can do. Some of these observations are not especially new, but they carry a new urgency this week.
Write About Engaging People
Professional historians are often urged to tell more stories; in other words, to spend less time explaining and analyzing, and instead to write compelling narratives. That’s good advice, and by and large I think we’ve gotten better about heeding it.
But I think there’s a second piece of the puzzle: historians also need to spend more time writing about people. Audiences appreciate history that tells stories of people’s lives.
I’ve given Louis Menand’s The Metaphysical Club as a gift to several non-historians. Although it’s a work of intellectual history and not a tale of battles and conquests, people I’ve given it to have really enjoyed it. The reason is that Menand does a brilliant job centering his study on actual people living real lives. Far too often, it seems, historians use drop individuals in and out of our narratives at breakneck speed only to prove a point.
Avoid Nuance for Nuance’s Sake
“What caused the Civil War?” “Slavery.”
If there’s one good thing that’s happened this week, it’s that professional historians have been pushed to refute Kelly with a clear, concise answer. But this is something that historians all too often fail to do. By virtue of our professional training, we’re often quick to temper clear-cut claims in favor of nuanced arguments. Sometimes nuance is necessary. Other times, though, it needlessly muddles our arguments and proves off-putting to lay audiences.
In some excellent advice to historians seeking to write op-eds, Nicole Hemmer of the Miller Center at the University of Virginia, noted the importance of scaling back on “hedging” and avoiding getting “too in the weeds.”
One wonders what our books and articles might read like if we adopted this advice more generally?
Start Caring About Readership Metrics
I suspect this point will prove the most controversial with academic historians. All too often, readership has been a secondary consideration in academic publishing. Sure, it’s great to have a lot of people read one’s books and articles. But the primary purpose of publishing hasn’t been to get readers. It’s been to check boxes on the CV for job searches, tenure, and promotion.
One of the speakers at the U.S. Intellectual History conference offered the provocative suggestion that historians should pay more attention to — and talk about — their sales numbers.
I think this is right. In our current political and cultural climate, we don’t have the luxury to enjoy scholarship for scholarship’s sake (nor do as many professional historians care about things like tenure given the state of the academic profession). Not everything should come down to sales metrics, of course. But it’s time for professional historians to start caring whether we’re reaching an audience or not.
Until we do, we’ll have ceded the popular conception of history to the likes of Brian Kilmeade and Bill O’Reilly.