18 February 2015

Gordon S. Wood Nails The "incestuous conversations of the academic scholars"

*Update: Kevin Levin responds (kinda) to Professor Wood here. I'll be responding to Kevin Levin in a separate post soon. 

Oh my. Professor Gordon S. Wood seems to delight in overturning the tables in the temple:
College students and many historians have become obsessed with inequality and white privilege in American society. And this obsession has seriously affected the writing of American history. The inequalities of race and gender now permeate much of academic history-writing, so much so that the general reading public that wants to learn about the whole of our nation’s past has had to turn to history books written by nonacademics who have no Ph.D.s and are not involved in the incestuous conversations of the academic scholars.  (Emphasis mine.)
Now that was a mouthful if ever there was one. Sounds familiar, does it not?

And . . .
. . . the new generation of historians has devoted itself to isolating and recovering stories of the dispossessed: the women kept in dependence; the American Indians shorn of their lands; the black slaves brought in chains from Africa. Consequently, much of their history is fragmentary and essentially anachronistic—condemning the past for not being more like the present. It has no real interest in the pastness of the past. These historians see themselves as moral critics obligated to denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present. (Emphasis and links mine.)
And . . .
Not only does the history these moral reformers write invert the proportions of what happened in the past, but it is incapable of synthesizing the events of the past. It is inevitably partial, with little or no sense of the whole. If the insensitive treatment of women, American Indians, and African slaves is not made central to the story, then, for them, the story is too celebratory. Since these historians are not really interested in the origins of the nation, they have difficulty writing any coherent national narrative at all, one that would account for how the United States as a whole came into being. (Emphasis mine.)
It would be really hard to add anything to these comments. And it's not necessary. He simply nails it. Those of us outside the "incestuous conversations" have been pointing this out and writing about it for many years. But there's something very validating when these same observations come from inside the temple of academia. We know what he writes rings true which is why the strident claims of "objectivity and balance" from these same academic historians, along with their scoffing at the notion of political correctness, consoles only those involved in the "incestuous conversations." They are blinded by their own arrogance and sense of moral superiority; the blind leading the blind.

You can read all of Professor Wood's brilliant piece (which is actually a tribute to Professor Bernard Bailyn) here at The Weekly Standard. He concisely, but very skillfully, exposes the shrinking credibility of modern historians and one can sense both the sadness and anger in his writing.

Hat tip to David Corbett.


Anonymous said...

That's interesting because sadness and anger are the two main impressions I get when I read your blog.

Kent Masterson Brown said...


As you know, I love your blog and read it every day. Today’s post is, perhaps, your best ever! Gordon Wood is my favorite historian. His books, The Creation of the American Republic and Empire of Liberty, are without parallel as narratives about the formation of the Union. Last fall, a premier showing of my latest film, Daniel Boone and the Opening of the American West, was held at a nearby State university. There was a huge crowd. At the end of the program, a woman stood up and introduced herself as a professor of anthropology. She groused about why the film did not include a discussion of the “indigenous peoples” who were displaced by Daniel Boone. She claimed she had been involved in a “dig” nearby where a Native American village dating to Boone’s time was uncovered. I gave her “short shrift.” The fact is there were no “indigenous peoples” living in Kentucky then; all had disappeared more than a century before Daniel Boone entered the region, but that didn’t matter to her. Her concentration on what she wanted everyone to believe was more important than the actual history. Her goal was to denigrate the famed frontiersman and make him a reason for the elimination of the native peoples, whether it was true or not. The crowd bristled at her moralizing tone, and she eventually stomped out of the auditorium. Her display was precisely that about which Gordon Wood writes. We have an obligation to tell the history of our country as it was, free from the moralizing that utterly distorts, and in many cases completely contradicts, the great narrative. It is one of the momentous challenges of our time.


Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - that's interesting because those would be correct impressions, for the same reasons expressed by Professor Wood. Thanks for the comment.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Kent - thanks for taking the time to comment! Yes, I agree, your experience is a perfect illustration of what Professor Wood is describing. The focus is not history, its moralizing to advance both a political agenda and, I believe, to elevate one's own standing as compared to those who went before us. It's so shallow and self-serving, isn't it?

BTW, I've not forgotten about doing the review. The tail has been wagging the dog as of late, but it will be up some time this weekend. Thanks again for reading and commenting and for the great work you're doing - keep it up!

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

BTW, it will be interesting to see if any of the "memory" historians will respond to Professor Wood's criticisms. I know of quite a few that fit his description to the tee.

Anonymous said...

Sad and angry? Great way to go through life.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Anon - Really? That's your response to this post? How juvenile. First of all, your red herring distractions are rather transparent. If you want to be taken seriously, try to bring your A game here. Secondly, stay on the focus of the post and avoid silly personal criticisms. Thirdly, "sad and angry" are appropriate human responses to the matter at hand. And, lastly, if you're going to be critical, fine but you'll need to stop hiding behind "Anonymous."

Jessie A. Sanford said...

If you can't use your real name you are a coward and anyone with any sense can see it. You are not changing anyone's mind that might have agreed with you except that they now know you are a coward.
Dr. Williams thanks for you insight on many issues. i truly enjoy your blog.

Jessie Sanford

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Mr. Sanford - thank you for the kind words. I do have a moment of brilliance now and then, but things usually get back to normal in short order. And I am not a "Dr."

I dropped out of college after one semester because they simply weren't teaching anything I wanted to learn. All of my (formal) education is technical (certificates and professional designations) in the field of law and finance.

Thanks for taking the time to comment.

Michael Dennis Rodan said...

Why is it that those who drop out of college because they weren't teaching anything you wanted are the ones who later in life cry the loudest about what colleges are or aren't doing.

Seems like someone did not give it a chance. One semester really?
Sure college may not be for everyone, but unless you actually give it a chance to do what you want it to do I suggest you rethink your assessment of it.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Michael - thanks for the comment. Your question would seem to answer itself.

Yes, one semester - and just that much was torture. I was bored out of my mind. They were teaching much more interesting things at the bar just down the road. (Locating a bar that close to campus was a great idea!)

I agree, college could still be the right choice where a degree is absolutely necessary for one's choice in vocations. But beyond that, it's becoming more and more irrelevant - particularly since the advent of the internet. But, financially, it's a huge rip off for the most part. My assessment stands.

Thanks again.

ropelight said...

For an historian of Professor Gordon Wood's stature to publicly take the profession's obsessed myopic scribblers to the wood house and leave them fumin' an' fussin' mad with their red rear ends exposed is sure to provoke intemperate responses.

I see Kevin Levin has already weighed in and awarded Professor Wood a big fat F for his efforts.

RGW, I've followed the comments here and decided to keep my powder dry till you post a response to Levin's self-serving mischaracterizations but I will note the target rich environment.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Target rich indeed. Like shootin' fish in a barrel. Thanks RL.

Ralph Steel said...


So how does one address things such as the plight of the American Indian, slavery and women's rights in these grand national narratives without mentioning the "bad" parts?

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

It's a matter of degree, balance and emphasis, don't you think Ralph? Again, if you read Wood's piece, I believe he answers that question very clearly.

Much of this stems from the fact that universities and colleges (actually, just about all of our education institutions) are now under the influence of those ideas and persons which/who came of age during the radicalism of the 1960's.

I'm curious (and please don't take offense), but how old are you?

Ralph said...

I am 44 born in 1970.

While I hate to echo Levin, I must admit that Woods does not mention anything specific in his complain other than he does not like the more pinpoint focus of current history.

Woods says..."But a new generation of historians is no longer interested in how the United States came to be."

Why do they have to be interested in this? Why can't they focus on other subjects such as Slavery or the American Indian?

And speaking to Ropelight's comments elsewhere, It was a type of history prior to the "radicals" of the 1960 that allowed the country to be hoodwinked by the idea of the Lost Cause as real history, and therefore a willingness to not tell the history of the Confederacy with all its slavery warts.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

"Woods does not mention anything specific"

Please Ralph, really? The notion that academic historians is obsessed with all the topics he mentions, and have come to see themselves as "moral crusaders" is well-established fact. The piece was not a major treatise on the specifics.

"Why do they have to be interested in this? Why can't they focus on other subjects such as Slavery or the American Indian?"

No one says they can't, but it's the tendency of these historians to condemn "the past for not being more like the present" and their efforts to "denounce the values of the past in order to somehow reform our present."

Some things have become rather self-evident Ralph. But if you're looking for specifics, just spend some time reading posts here. I've supplied dozens of them over the years.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Correction: "academic historians *are", not "is." ;-)

ropelight said...

Ralph, if you consider just some of the advantages in organized Army units, men, guns, cannon, and other military equipment, food, medical supplies, Naval power, industrial capacity, and taxing ability the North possessed in abundance at the outset of the War Against Southern Independence it would be difficult to conclude the Confederacy actually stood much of a chance of holding their own, and even less chance of prevailing over such long odds, unless of course you're hoodwinking yourself.

Let me suggest the possibility there's more to the notion of a Lost Cause then you're willing to acknowledge, and that those who willfully deny such clear and obvious facts are hiding from the truth.

Why they do it is a question worthy of self-inquiry.

Richard G. Williams, Jr. said...

Correct RL. And for an in-depth look at another perspective (the correct one) on the Lost Cause, I would direct readers to Dr. Clyde Wilson's excellent essay: