21 April 2009

Missing The Masses


Eric Wittenberg recently posted some comments from the editor of both America’s Civil War and Civil War Times, Dana Shoaf:

"The problem with academic historians is they are not reaching a wide popular audience," Shoaf said. He said there is a need for factual, well-researched historical articles that are moderately priced and appeal to the masses. Shoaf said that in his business, people often are reluctant to read social history because they think it is boring. They want articles about battles, but Shoaf said they like social history if they aren’t aware that’s what they are reading." (Emphasis mine.)

Mr. Shoaf is correct and he echoes, to some extent, comments I've made here before. I wrote the following in an earlier post about celebratory history:

"Moreover, most of these academics write primarily to impress each other and to receive the accolades of their peers. The "anti-intellectual"--code speak for the "common man"--finds their writing style boring, condescending, and offensive so their impact is probably not as great as they would like to think. That is a good thing."

And this from an earlier post about the approach of some academics:

". . . they write (poorly) boring books and commentary that not even Mensa members could make sense of, thinking that using 20 words, when 10 would suffice, makes them sound smarter."

"They've convinced themselves that their "scholarship" and pronouncements are original and that no one else has ever considered their angle. They enviously criticize popular styles of historical narrative (i.e. David McCullough) that far outsells anything they could ever produce. They become especially condescending and emotional when anyone (even credentialed historians) challenges their politically correct orthodoxy. That's when the ad hominen attacks begin - the last refuge of those who can't answer an argument."

"And then they wonder why they have so little influence among the general public and those who study the conflict casually, as a hobby, or as "entertainment" - to use their word. They believe that their "profession" is on the same level as a brain surgeon's and only they have the "sophistication," training, and intelligence to research, read, study and come to conclusions and interpret for the great unwashed masses. "How dare anyone challenge us!" How laughable. (Many of these same elitists do not, themselves, possess advanced degrees in history, but they do subscribe to the orthodoxy. That's what's important.)"

Obviously, my criticism is more damning, but you get the drift. I also heard Bob Krick make similar comments in recent years.

6 comments:

James F. Epperson said...

People --- academics or not --- tend to "look down their noses" at folks who are more successful. It's an unfortunate human trait. In my area of mathematics it means that folks who write good textbooks are considered professionally less than top-notch researchers. The same thing happens in other disciplines: The folks who write well enough to produce books that sell are often looked down upon.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I agree James. Envy is a universal sin. Rare is the top notch historian who is also a good writer. There are some - James Robertson and Douglas Southall Freeman come to mind. There are others of course.

James F. Epperson said...

Writing style is very much a matter of taste. I know Freeman and Robertson are good (Bud's Stonewall might be one of the best biographies ever written), but I think (and it is just my opinion) that Catton and Foote were better.

Brboyd said...

". . . they write (poorly) boring books and commentary that not even Mensa members could make sense of, thinking that using 20 words, when 10 would suffice, makes them sound smarter."


Yes, and the same with big words. "I hate to use big words. Especially when I find that a diminutive one will suffice." ;)

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

I agree. And I too admire both Catton and Foote. Yes, Robertson's Stonewall is definitely a classic. I was hooked from the first page.

Brboyd said...

Foote did not keep me enthralled like Catton did. Maybe its me. I have the series, I will give him another chance.