This post started somewhat out of the blue between searching for job, scholarships, and reading idiocrasy…I mean news about current events. Peter Novick wrote the “bible” or the history of the historical profession That Noble Dream and I’ve noticed as of late that historians are reluctant to use historiography when discussing the development of the profession, in what I will call the age of ‘crisis.’ I picked up Novick for the first time as an undergraduate and faced it head on in American readings two and go back to it often. I go back to this book regardless of the topic I am working on because I am curious about shifts in the profession over time. What historian would not want to know how the history of the profession has changed? Yet, what struck me is the professor that lead us through the work, roughly a year ago now, bet that the profession would shift back towards ‘big history.’ I love to argue, but he was absolutely right, but no one has really considered that yet. As I started my masters’ thesis I noticed that myself, along with others in my cohort become increasingly interested in intellectual history, it’s not like we were all exposed to it, but somehow all drifted in that direction, perhaps because of the composition of our intellectual community. Although we all had very different topics, we still wanted to understand the context in which our topics were created. I’ve thought about this numerous times and wondered how a medievalist and two environmental historians drifted in the same direction at the same time. As an undergraduate I found myself watching the profession, but now more so than ever before, I was drawn back to Novick and chapter “There was no King in Israel” and this struck me, has the American Historical profession fallen off a cliff?
*Gasp* Say it ain’t so! Yet, I would argue no it has not, but historians themselves have lost their sense of direction in a short space of time and I wondered why? Perhaps, it is just me, but I have noticed that the humanities are increasingly bleeding into one another, but is it to save ourselves? I picture a bunch of humanist huddled in a corner clutching each other and our respective books. I’m aware of the importance of sticking together to save our professions, but how far do we go? Historians without historiography is like living in a bizarre alternative reality, and it seems that we are losing the fundamentals of our profession at an alarming rate and I’m not strictly talking about American, World, or however you choose to label yourself, I’m referring to historians generally. In the chapter mentioned above, Novick argued that the profession fragmented over time and that the profession reached beyond the point of no return. Yet, is that true have we indeed gone over Novick proverbial cliff? It seems that way and I say that because there is limited scholarship on the development of the profession beyond Novick’s book. This could be a gross overgeneralization, but is there a scholarly work produced since the late 1980s that cover the changes to the profession? We are overdue for an update, especially with many recent changes. The fragmentation of the profession also made me ponder about democracy, which also seems fragmented or in a downward spiral every time I see an article or post on Facebook or other outlet titles scream ‘constitutional crisis,’ or ‘death of liberalism,’ just to name the two that stuck out. Do these article suggestion, much like the American historical profession, which is arguably modeled after the empire it serves, dead or in crisis? I would argue that the profession is a by-product of the society it was constructed in, but that it is not in crisis, but will be if historians do not stay thinking in larger terms outside of their niches. Historians are time “turners or tuners” and we have strayed too far from our roots, and perhaps entangled ourselves so far into our specialties that we cannot find a common solution to a reasonably simple problem. Mind you, I’m aware how challenging it is to craft an all-encompassing historiographical study of the profession, but at this critical point in time, American historians inparticular need to think about how the profession fits into a transnational, international, or global context. The U.S. did not develop in isolation there is no reason why its history should be either. Americanist love tunnel vision, but I can say that because my small graduate program had few Americanist, I learned how to transform my own work by openly exploring and injecting historiographies into the mix.
As I have written many times before, historians do not ‘predict’ the future, but we do use an acute awareness of the past to frame the present. Some scholars are shifting back to regional and local studies, which is typical when we feel we have lost our edge, but I would argue in the age of anti-intellectualism more people (the public in this case) is drawn to understanding the past because they have lost faith in the media, political leaders or feel prosecuted. I will omit my own current events, but I too find myself clinging to my knowledge of the past very tightly these days. People are increasing seeking their truths and historians should embrace this in some form or fashion. The blockade seems to originate with administrators and institutional models, which are not considering knowledge for knowledge’s sake. Most of them, if they are not a top tier institution look to produce an economically sound plan and not educate or liberate a students’ mind (just a personal observation). Yet, as is evident by the education system, we should encourage tradition academic approaches, alongside hybrid structures, but must also understand how the public interacts with history (the past). Furthermore, it is our role as practitioners of the past to construct we bridge and close the gap between the ‘ivory tower’ and ‘every man.’ Again, in the program I was in, they drove home the importance of historiography, but who has published a history of the profession since Novick? If I were going to ‘nail jelly to a wall,’ like Novick did, I would consider trends in the professional since the 1990s and while including a transnational, world, environmental, and digital history angle. Not trying to ring my own bell here, but I found myself drawn to shifts in the profession when I started writing about a proto-environmental historian, but most graduate students tend to belly ache over dense works like That Noble Dream. Yet, without that clear understanding of working like his, historians are sending students into the profession and field unprepared for the questions that might arise. However, it’s not entirely the fault of the professions when you have admin breathing down your neck about teaching the most relevant stuff to get us out onto the job market and whiny students.
Although we tend to overlook the importance of ‘academic digestion,’ which is the most important thing for any historians to consider. The best works often take months or in some cases years to develop. One cannot rush the seasons along and the same can be said about a good book. Do not rush perfection because then some graduate student will come along and deconstruct it before it even has a chance to have a worn in. Historians are not typically the type of people who rush through anything, in fact, most look at us and see turtles moving slowing through peanut butter. This pace may seem frustrating to some, but history is written art and to remain relevant over long spans of time we have to age a bit. No offense to the political scientists, but historians often come after you to make nuanced arguments of the points overlooked in the moment. Although, the main point here is to remind historians of the vitality of our profession across time and space. Furthermore, to encourage Americanists to get out of the tunnel for a moment and to genuinely think about how our specialties connect to large narratives within our own profession. Also, to push others to focus on economic, political, and social history in the ‘age of uncertainty.’ I say uncertainty, but our profession dates back many epochs and we always find a way to preserve a record of human life throughout time. Finally, historians should not let political division divide the profession because all historians have a nuanced point that could argue on every single point, currently in print and not. Today, we battle abundance, which perhaps threats us more than scarcity, and in abundance, we are overwhelmed with opinions. We should not fan negative abundance, but understand it and how it alters our profession.
*Please note I have elected not to footnote, but the works are cited*
Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1988) 573-629.
Carl Becker, “Everyman His Own Historian,” The American Historical Review 37, No. 2, (December 29, 1931), https://www.historians.org/about-aha-and-membership/aha-history-and-archives/presidential-addresses/carl-l-becker (accessed on February 19th 2017)
Roy Rosenzweig, “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past in a Digital Era,” The American Historical Review 103, No. 3 (June 2003) 735-762 https://chnm.gmu.edu/digitalhistory/links/pdf/introduction/0.6b.pdf (accessed on February 19th 2017)