Credentialism, Careerism, and the Death of Academic History

This morning, on social media, I ran across a post in which a young PhD candidate at a Midwestern University was bemoaning the domination of the publishing lists in History by persons who were not academic historians.

I’m not going to embarrass the young man, or those who commented on his post, by being more specific in my identification of the post than that. I imagine he means well and sincerely. I also imagine that this is a received opinion, picked up from his preceptors. And I submit that this credentialism, mere credentialism, is, at least at secondhand, in essence an instance of careerism. Academic historians, without more, are by no means always the best historians; and history can be written quite successfully by those whose backgrounds, credentials, degrees, and professions are otherwhere. In fact, it is often written better.

DeVoto was an instructor in literature, a literary critic, and a journalist. Parkman was trained as a lawyer. Gibbon was a man of letters. Horgan was a novelist and librarian. Catton never completed his degree and was a journalist. Fehrenbach was a journalist. Tanner is a lawyer, with an undergraduate military education at VMI. “Slam” Marshall was a soldier and a journalist. Frank Dobie was a journalist and a teacher. Allan Nevins was a journalist with an MA in English. Tom Holland, unlike his brother James, did not read history at University, and began life as a novelist. D. Cameron Watt read PPE. Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist, folklorist, and novelist. David McCullough’s BA is in literature. Perhaps that is why, Cassandra-like, he keeps trying to warn the profession that history is a literary art … and is not heeded.

Mattingly was a credentialed and professional historian; but it was naval service which made him the historian we celebrate.

Political scientists and practicing economists are almost invariably better writers on political and economic history than are academic historians who are that and no more; George Kennan took his undergraduate degree in History, but his formation as an historian is due entirely to his service as a diplomat.

Naturally, most credentialed, tenured, academic historians dismiss and, where they dare, despise these poachers. They are wrong.

An account of the Valley Campaign written by a VMI man who, owing to a legal education and the practice of law, has a sense of evidence and the ability to weigh conflicting eyewitness testimony, is necessarily superior to the bloodless contributions of some critical-theory-trained and -credentialed, bloodless faculty lounge warrior. Naval history is better written by a sailor than by a landlubber, credentialed though she may be. Writers and literary critics tend to handle their sources with a sharper eye than do mere academics. And they are less likely, it seems, to commit plagiarism.

They might have pegged even in prior decades. No longer. The modern academy no longer educates historians in any meaningful sense of the term: it merely credentials people. And it does so on the basis of squalid little orthodoxies. These then go on in the main to concentrate their increasingly microscopic – and myopic – focus on nonexistent issues, the chimæras of French and Frenchified theory, pirouetting in Lyotards. Of course the profession is dying: and any reasonably on-the-ball coroner should immediately rule it a suicide. It has ceased to be an academic discipline; it has become mere unacademic indiscipline. Naturally, few students wish to study it and those who do cannot find jobs in the academy, as fewer and fewer academic historians are wanted. Of course their books do not sell: the lamentably small subset of Americans, and Westerners generally, capable of reading and understanding a work of scholarship prefer that it come from an intellectually honest and well-rounded scholar who writes good English prose. Vanishingly few people wish to shell out good money for a semi-intelligible, subliterate monograph questioning – not even answering: questioning – whether the few recorded examples of women who disguised themselves as men to fight in their country’s service in the past did or did not suffer from gender dysphoria, or some damned thing.

Worse still, this abdication of – in both senses – responsibility by academic historians has allowed sheer nonsense, and pernicious nonsense at that, and falsehood, to flourish: such as the execrable 1619 Project and the despicable dishonesty of Nikole Hannah-Jones.

Were today’s credentialed and academic historians giving value for money: good writing and intellectually honest scholarship: it is they who would be on the best seller lists in History. They don’t, they aren’t, and it’s their own damned fault. As I wrote in the preface to Benevolent Designs: The Countess and the General: George Washington, Selina Countess of Huntingdon, their correspondence, & the evangelizing of America:

In late October of 2012, through the too-great courtesy of the Darien Historical Society, Mr. Jack Gault its learned Director, and my old friend Jon Zagrodzky, I found myself flying from IAH to La Guardia. I was booked to speak to the Darien Historical Society on RMS Titanic, thanks to my having co-written a history of the US Senate and British Board of Trade inquiries into Titanic’s loss.

As America unrolled itself in palimpsest beneath my flight, a long scroll overwritten again and again, I wrote down a few observations, on which I now draw, almost unedited. I hadn’t flown in a good twenty years (and the post-9/11 world is very different, I assure you, to a longtime non-flier); the airport at Bush had been little like the airport I remembered of two decades before. Modern airports are conventionally compared to cities; from food court to baggage cart (“comin’ through, folks!”), they have even their own costers’ and street-vendors’ cries. Once in the air, however, it is very easy indeed to feel oneself sealed off and set apart.

This is not a good thing.

… From cruising altitude, groundscape becomes very two-dimensional – such that a road to a farm can at first appear to be an obelisk. There is a lesson in this for historians and historiographers.

So too is there such a lesson in the way in which, at cruising altitude, one feels – and the view looks – as if one were falling back towards stall speed. But this is not so, any more than a road is an obelisk casting no shadow: it is all quite literally a matter of perspective. A nearer horizon is necessary: it undeceives. For reasons of speed, scope, and three-dimensionality alike, history cannot successfully be done from thirty thousand feet.

On the other hand, even at thirty thousand feet, you can’t miss the Gulf or the Mississippi. And you cannot help but wonder how we made it across a continent, we Americans who are not wholly of Native American ancestry (and indeed, from Bering to Patagonia, how they managed). It’s a big country, and its big bold features can’t be missed at any altitude; may perhaps be seen most wholly at altitude. This may explain the recent fashion for Big Ideas History: you don’t have to leave First Class, come back to earth, and get close to things.

By contrast, train travel – rail travel – is as linear as history itself, and inevitably at or near ground level. It necessarily comes freighted with history, the recapitulated history of itself and its own technology.

It bridges, it cuts – if the rock is competent – but it is all but literally in a rut. To some extent, the same is so of the automobile: it requires roads. A pedestrian history avoids this restriction; but it is too slow, too limited, and too low to the ground to take any wide view.

Metaphorically, at least, history is best done on horseback.

If academic historians want to do their jobs and have their reward, they need to get off their high horses, out of their offices, and onto horseback, in the field. Beats hell out of pissing-and-moaning on social media.

Published by Markham Shaw Pyle

Ex-lawyer turned historian; W&L man; historian; author; partner, Bapton Books

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