13 February 2014

H.L. Mencken On Professional Historians

"Nearly all our professional historians are poor men holding college posts, and they are ten times more cruelly beset by the ruling politico-plutocratic-social oligarchy than ever the Prussian professors were by the Hohenzollerns. Let them diverge in the slightest from what is the current official doctrine, and they are turned out of their chairs with a ceremony suitable for the expulsion of a drunken valet." ~ H.L. Mencken, 1920

Oh my, how little has changed. Of course, we know many professional historians and bloggers have their own, "preferred narrative" about this.


Anonymous said...

We observe patterns and we develop stereotypes which result in prejudice. This goes for ethnic, cultural and regional issues as well. How many examples does it take to establish a pattern in a person's mind? How many examples are necessary and how many are sufficient to establish a pattern? Three?

When I was a child, everyday at home I saw a metal tray from West Point Military Academy that said, "Duty, honor, country." But the social studies textbook from school said, "Duty, honor, character." One day the county reporter was visiting and my mother told her about it, so she wrote up an article aabout my discovery in the rural weekly paper. This incident sent a strong message to a child that there was a disconnect between school and real life.

While in a VA college in the Valley, every day the history teacher would have the student from the campus radio station read the news print-out from the Associated Press. Her enthusiasm and thirst for knowledge were awesome. She tried to connect history to the present.

I suppose there are different patterns among "historians," and it is interesting to see specific examples representing different patterns. Any one person has only so many hours in the day, days in the week, etc., to read and study. Who is a "historian" and who is not?

Even a judge has not read all the laws in the books. It is up to lawyers to find laws to support their clients' positions. So it is with "historians." They can find anything to support a certain viewpoint. Rhetoric can persuade one judge, or a panel of judges, but legal analysts can tear the court opinion apart indefinitely.

In the subject of history, the public is the judge and analyst. One professor, or one blogger, is not the only person arguing a case. Especially if the public never hears the professor or reads the blog.

Sometimes a history themed festival can feel like a school play, where only the parents show up to view it. Or where only artists come to an art show, and the majority of purchases come from other artists. Do history-themed events draw the general public, or do history buffs attend history-themed events?

I know of one person who became interested in the civil war and history by reading a historical marker while waiting at a stoplight. He switched his career and worked as a docent and guide. Go figure. You never know.

I would hesitate to paint every "historian" with a broad brush. Maybe we could make a list of the ones we admire, after finding out something about them. For example, Ed Ayers of UVA and U of R. starting the "Valley of the Shadow" project was an absolutely awesome project. His book, "In the Presence of Mine Enemies" was an awesome project. I am sure there are thousands more who have done awesome work.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - thanks for a great comment. I agree not "all" historians fall into this category, but it is the prevailing, institutional mindset.

"In the subject of history, the public is the judge and analyst."

To an extent, yes. But the public is not the final arbiter of what is true and correct. Truth simply is, facts are what they are. It's the way one interprets and analyzes those facts and truths. That was Mencken's point - that many historians are pushed to certain perspectives by forces other that facts and truth.

Yes, I agree, we all have biases. I admit mine and do my best to harness them. Many academics and professional historians deny their biases while being guilty of NOT harnessing them. That's my problem with so many of them, besides the fact they're wrong about so much.

British historian Sir Herbert Butterfield once said that historians who are aware of their own biases and make allowances for those biases are more reliable than those who are deceived of their own claims to objectivity.

Such is the state of so many modern historians.

BTW, if the public is the judge of modern historians' perspectives, then modern historians are abject failures.


Thanks again for a great comment.

Val Proto said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Anonymous said...

On this very subject involving a doctrinaire and recently awarded Lincoln "expert":


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Thank you Anon.