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Lamentations

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At Democracy, Kevin Mattson revives the “decline of the public intellectuals” narrative to castigate historians for not enlightening the public sphere as they supposedly did during the vibrant post-war era, when Richard Hofstadter, C. Vann Woodward, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and other young historians “engaged in the important matters of the day.” The piece is earnest and liberal, but it bears all the usual stigmata of its genre — (a) the use of silly- and obscure-sounding titles poached from one of the top professional journals, followed by the predictable goaning about “irrelevance” and “specialization”; (b) a reification of departed giants; (c) eulogies for the ideal of “disinterested scholarship” and a swipe against “politicized” history; and (d) a prevailing declensionist fantasy that wonders if past models can be somehow reanimated. (He also rips Howard Zinn, which is another matter altogether. I like A People’s History well enough but would never assign it in a course; regardless, to equate Zinn’s historical method with Donald Rumsfeld’s — as Mattson does — strikes me as pointless pandering.)

There are a number of major problems with Mattson’s argument. First, he appears to blame historians themselves for the sloppy, politicized uses of the past offered up by Donald Rumsfeld or George W. Bush, who are fond of analogizing the “war on terror” to the war against fascism; or by Jacob Weisberg’s comparison of Ned Lamont to George McGovern; or by any number of other examples of inapporpriate historical reflection. As for the ordinary public, Mattson suggests, Americans prefer simple-minded histories — crap by David McCulloch or Stephen Ambrose, crap on the History channel, crap from political pundits like Jonah Goldberg. Whatever the merits of these assertions, it does not follow necessarily that historical professionalization is to blame. Bad historical analogies are endemic to American politics. The traitors who led the Confederacy, for example, insisted they were acting in the spirit of the American Revolution (so, for that matter, did supporters of the Union); Lyndon Johnson rationalized the Vietnam War in part by recalling the vigor of the Second World War. No matter how eloquent, effectual and “engaged” historians may be, it’s not their fault when nationalist dogma or dishonest hackery carries the day.

Second, and more importantly, Mattson is apparently willfully unaware of the ways that historians do actively “engage” the public. Siva Vaidhyanathan offers a great rejoinder to Mattson, offering a quick list of (mostly) younger historians who write for popular audiences. He also adds that “most academics have always and will always decline or fail to engage with the public.” This is undoubtedly true. On the other hand, I can’t think of a time in the history of my profession in which scholars and teachers were more active in public life. At many colleges and universities, faculty are actively revising their tenure requirements — or are at least conversing about it — in ways that give some greater weight to alternative forms of scholarship and public service.

It’s important do debate the relevance of scholarship and intellectual labor, but I wish we didn’t have to frame the debate in these predictable terms.

(. . . link to Siva fixed . . .)

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