Yesterday in Salon, history professors Andrew Burstein and Nancy Isenberg weighed in on the problems of historiography in the popular press. Their article is interesting and well worth the read, but it boils down to a single point: The only people qualified to write history are tenured professors of history, particularly those of liberal politics, like the authors themselves.
This oversimplifies their argument somewhat, and in it I find things I both agree with and disagree with. Let’s start with the most important point they raise, and the one I agree with most of all. The authors are here writing about those who popularize historians’ work, which they consider a sin only slightly less vile than armed robbery:
This is a lesson that I have tried to drive into the heads of alternative authors. Ancient astronaut theorists and alternative archaeologists fetishize secondhand sources, and they repeat whatever they find in print as though the act of committing ink to paper legitimized any idea, no matter how stupid. They also believe that secondhand sources only improve with age, failing to recognize that knowledge increases over time, and secondhand analysis from centuries past is hampered by the limits of the knowledge available when written.
Burstein and Isenberg loathe journalists, non-history-majors, and others who aren’t officially “trained” to work with primary sources. But they err in assuming that it is university-level history training that grants an imaginary authority to do so and to do it well. They take to task Doris Kearns Goodwin and David McCollough for their failings—the same failings, one might add, that David Childress and Erich von Däniken and Graham Hancock and Gavin Menzies display: unsystematic thinking, secondhand research, copying others’ ideas as their own, and a general unoriginality passed off as genius.
None of the alternative authors I’ve mentioned, for example, have an original thought in their heads. Childress especially does nothing but lightly rewrite the work of others, equally squalid in their threadbare thinking. Von Däniken was forced to admit his copying from Pauwels, Bergier, and Charroux. Hancock and Menzies at least attempt originality, but their work is repackaged turn of the twentieth century alternative history dressed up with undigested chunks of scientific reports, misunderstood.
I should also mention one other way all these authors, mainstream and alternative, differ from me. With the possible exception of Childress, they all have staff who read books for them and send them summaries and quotes to use in their books. (Academics aren’t immune here, either. They have graduate students for this, and many professors outsource the writing of first drafts of chapters to these un-credited student ghostwriters.) So, one thing in my favor: My work is 100% my own.
It seems that I am making Burstein’s and Isenberg’s case for them, but I’m not. Burstein and Isenberg believe that anyone who does not have university-level history training cannot write history and should keep out of their historical sandbox. They criticize Bill O’Reilly for his Killing Lincoln—not because it contains innumerable errors of fact, a legitimate concern—but because they consider it “fraud” for its failure to contain an original thesis.
Here is where I disagree with Burstein and Isenberg. They have confused writing about history with historiography. There is a value in a tale well told as much as there is in original scholarship. They forget that everyone needs to learn history from somewhere, and it just isn’t possible for the general reader (for whom the authors apparently have disdain) to dive in to specialist academic literature to learn about a topic of passing interest. There is value in producing a lively, engaging narrative telling readers what happened in a particular time and place; and I dare say that this is just as important as producing another Marxist critique of the effects of late capitalism on the minority group du jour. Historiography is vital for producing new insights about the past, but sharing history with others is equally important since all the historiography in the world won’t do anyone any good if no one knows about it.
Also, as someone who does not have a degree in history (mine is in anthropology/archaeology and journalism) I am somewhat disturbed that Burstein and Isenberg think I am incapable of researching primary sources, like, say the U.S. government ancient astronaut files; uncovering new primary sources, like, say, Erich von Däniken’s letter to President Ford; and writing a well-received, carefully reasoned cultural history, like, say, Knowing Fear.
But Burstein and Isenberg know this. Both have written mass-market American history volumes for major New York publishers, including Viking, Random House, and Knopf. Their criticism seems to reflect their feelings about their own careers as much as History Itself.
If we take away Burstein and Isenberg’s efforts to man the barricades in protection of their profession, what we are left with is less an attack on non-professional historians than an anger at those who are unwilling to do real research, engage deeply in the material, and make a real effort to understand their subjects before cashing in on them.
And that’s something we can all agree on.
[Update, 5 PM 8/20/12: I wish I had seen the controversy over Harvard historian Niall Ferguson's Newsweek cover story when I was writing this. It just goes to show that even university-trained historians take lazy shortcuts and play recklessly with truth in service of ideology.]
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Esquire, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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