And your music? It’s just noise.
This interview with David McCullough encapsulates everything that’s silly and contradictory about the Barnes and Noble-style creative nonfiction writer’s complaints that professional historians are ruining history. First of all, the evidence of course is that today’s young people don’t know nothing ’bout history, with an obligatory nod to that silly study that reminds us of this fact, year after year, as though Americans of yore were some kind of social studies savants and New Left historians are to blame:
‘We’re raising young people who are, by and large, historically illiterate,” David McCullough tells me on a recent afternoon in a quiet meeting room at the Boston Public Library. Having lectured at more than 100 colleges and universities over the past 25 years, he says, “I know how much these young people—even at the most esteemed institutions of higher learning—don’t know.” Slowly, he shakes his head in dismay. “It’s shocking.”
He’s right. This week, the Department of Education released the 2010 National Assessment of Educational Progress, which found that only 12% of high-school seniors have a firm grasp of our nation’s history. And consider: Just 2% of those students understand the significance of Brown v. Board of Education.
Mr. McCullough began worrying about the history gap some 20 years ago, when a college sophomore approached him after an appearance at “a very good university in the Midwest.” She thanked him for coming and admitted, “Until I heard your talk this morning, I never realized the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.” Remembering the incident, Mr. McCullough’s snow-white eyebrows curl in pain. “I thought, ‘What have we been doing so wrong that this obviously bright young woman could get this far and not know that?'”
My question is, how can David McCullough play the role of a celebrated “historian” without considering that the young lady in question 20 years ago might have been thinking about the colonial settlements called New France, Louisiana, Kahokia, Missouri, Santa Fe, and the California missions, none of which are on “the East Coast?” At a “very good university in the Midwest,” chances are that the languages spoken locally 300 and 400 years ago were Algonquian and French, not English.
Next, we have the usual (and usually mutually contradictory claims) of the successful amateur who has no idea what’s actually been happening in American universities and among professional historians for at least 25 years:
- “History is a source of strength,” he says. “It sets higher standards for all of us.” Because everyone in the past was a paragon of virtue, hard work, and patriotic sacrifice? (Most professional historians are uncomfortable with uncritical hero-worship, and moreover, we’re bored writing books without villains and/or conflict.)
- “People who come out of college with a degree in education and not a degree in a subject are severely handicapped in their capacity to teach effectively,” Mr. McCullough argues. “Because they’re often assigned to teach subjects about which they know little or nothing.” This hasn’t been the standard in my state for at least the decade that I’ve been teaching here, and I don’t even know how long before that. (Twenty years? Those of you who know should fill me in.) The only people who major in education only are the K-6 teachers, who must necessarily be generalists. History teachers at the junior high and high school level these days were History majors who essentially double-majored in History and social studies teaching.
- “History is often taught in categories—women’s history, African American history, environmental history—so that many of the students have no sense of chronology. They have no idea what followed what.” And yet, at the same time, “[H]istory ought to be understood and taught to be considerably more than just politics and the military,” and “I’d take one of those textbooks. I’d clip off all the numbers on the pages. I’d pull out three pages here, two pages there, five pages here—all the way through. I’d put them aside, mix them all up, and give them to you and three other students and say, ‘Put it back in order and tell me what’s missing.'” Yeah–that’s the way to cure the “problems” with chronology and coverage.
- Textbooks are “‘so politically correct as to be comic. Very minor characters that are currently fashionable are given considerable space, whereas people of major consequence farther back’—such as, say, Thomas Edison—’are given very little space or none at all.'” Fortunately none of that “political correctness” has influenced David McCullough at all to think that history should be “more than just politics and the military.” Whew! And, by the way: since when does Thomas Edison count as someone who’s “farther back” in U.S. history? His entire adult life was lived after the Civil War and he died in the twentieth century!
- Of course, it’s professional historians who write articles and books for free who are to blame for this state of affairs. “‘Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.’ Yet he also adds quickly, ‘Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.'”
- Professional historians aren’t just bad writers, we’ve awful teachers who never think, talk, or write about teaching history effectively, either: “And teach history, he says—while tapping three fingers on the table between us—with ‘the lab technique.’ In other words, ‘give the student a problem to work on. If I were teaching a class,’ he says, ‘I would tell my students, ‘I want you to do a documentary on the building at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 42nd Street. Or I want to you to interview Farmer Jones or former sergeant Fred or whatever.'” Wow–what brilliant ideas! Thanks, guy-who-gives-only-highly-compensated-public-lectures-to-college-students! Those of us who do this all year ’round for a living never would have come up with those insights on our own.
Just go read the whole thing–if you’re up for a laugh this morning. (I’m sure some of you non-U.S. historians will have plenty to say about McCullough’s oddly narrow vision of history and “people of major consequence farther back,” all the way to the middle of the nineteenth century!) I’ve said my piece–now it’s your turn, friends!
48 thoughts on “You historians get off of David McCullough's lawn!”
“We’re too concentrated on having our children learn the answers,” he summarizes. “I would teach them how to ask questions—because that’s how you learn.”
So the evidence of the lack of knowledge of history is whether people know answers on some stupid multiple choice exam, but what we ought to be teaching is how to ask questions. Got it. I guess I ought to figure out how to give a multiple choice exam to my students that makes sure they know the right facts (about Edison! Gershwin!) and tests their ability to ask questions. Then the whole thing could be graded by scantron, and save me lots of time…
It’s lucky *he’s* not running our educational system!
I was surprised to learn that David McCullough was still alive.
It seems hard to swallow that a student who takes African American history, women’s history, environmental history (or any other “category” class) don’t learn a chronology. The thin guise here is that they might not dwell on the chronology (read master narrative) that McCullough thinks is important — You know, the one with all the people that McCullough thinks are actually important, who are implicitly not women, African Americans, etc.
Has he ever taught a class in his long, privileged life? Please.
Very dismayed with these quotations, Historiann! What was he thinking? Does this mean I have to stop reading The Greater Journey: Americans in Paris, which made a lot of long flights yesterday so much more bearable?
Yes — like a entire course, 2-3 days a week for the whole semester?
And of course, standardized testing and the enhanced significance of the AP in college haven’t helped. I….wonder…..why…….?
“‘Historians are never required to write for people other than historians.’ Yet he also adds quickly, ‘Most of them are doing excellent work. I draw on their excellent work. I admire some of them more than anybody I know. But, by and large, they haven’t learned to write very well.’”
So those academic historians don’t write very well but he *has* to still use their scholarship as secondary sources to prop up his own work. – What a dirty, rotten, back-stabbing sponger.
I agree with all of the critiques here, but I’ll be honest — I thought the interview was going to be even worse than it was. At least he didn’t go on a rant about how history should be the story of politics/battles and nothing else! But that just shows how low my expectations are for any discussion of history in the popular press.
I guess what chaps my a$$ is the fact that no one ever suggests that medical research is poorly written because Atul Gawande and Siddartha Mukherjee have a much wider readership. No one expects people publishing in science journals to write science for the general public. And yet historians and English professors are routinely roasted for having professional conversations (“too much jargon!”) and for publishing scholarship in specialized journals (“not writing anything anyone else can understand!”)
McCullough has played a role in popularizing certain selected strains of U.S. history–that’s a service to the cause of history in general, but (as Matt says) he pi$$es all over a profession without bothering to see what’s really going on or why historians have decided to go this way or that with their scholarship. Meghan, I think his conversion to the cause of history as not just politicians and battles is recent–probably because the book he’s trying to shill these days is about American artists and intellectuals in Paris in the 19th C (see Undine’s comment above, and/or the linked article for a description of the book.)
And, p.s.: I’ve never read or heard of Atul Gawande and Siddartha Mukherjee smacking around the physicians and medical researchers on whose work their books depend. I might be wrong about this, but I like Matt’s formulation: “a dirty, rotten, back-stabbing sponger.”
Actually, for #2, the situation varies. For secondary certification at two universities in the midwest with which I am familiar, students take an Integrated Social Studies Education major, which does entail far fewer courses in History than a major would take, and very few upper-division courses in subject areas, if any. The situation you describe about double majoring would be far preferable.
As someone who has recently toyed with the idea of writing a more “popular” work of historical nonfiction, I’m interested in the thread about historians writing for a more general audience. Am I just asking for trouble if I stick my toes in those waters?
And I like the parallel you’ve drawn, Historiann, with the “popular” work of Gawande and Mukherhjee.
McCullough’s clearly a tool, but I wanted to chime in on ProfInOH’s point. At one large northern-midwestern state where I taught for four years (not OH), students couldn’t do a secondary ed degree and major in history – they had to major in “Social Studies” (or it might have been “Social Studies Ed”), which basically meant they took all the 101 courses in anthropology, sociology, psychology, political science, and history (the history they had to take was, of course, US survey). They did not have to take any history courses beyond Intro US Survey. (I think they did have to take stats, actually, which they all dreaded and feared but I think was a good thing.) One of the problems the faculty had with the degree was that by its nature, it required very very little upper-division work. I believe students had to have some kind of concentration within the degree, but it was only 3-4 courses, and again, no advanced work required. Now, in practice most of the students ended up minoring in the area in which they concentrated, because it was pretty easy to do, but there was nothing requiring them to do this.
Of course, the reason the degree was organized this way was because the state didn’t hire anyone to teach “history” in secondary schools – just “social studies.” So it wasn’t like all the ed profs just conspired to create underprepared teachers – it’s a much bigger, more complex institutional issue. (I mean, it’s the states that set the standards.)
(I also don’t mean to suggest that students coming out of this degree were inherently underprepared or anything – the degree was just not intended to teach middle/high school students history specifically. We had a lot of great students in the secondary ed program who made wonderful teachers.)
But yeah, McCullough’s definitely a tool!
What a burden it must be to know everything, eh? I think getting off your self-righteous high horse might be a good start for all of u, especially u, historiann (clever, yes, but clever and a buck will get u…oh, I don’t know, a lifetime of feeling superior).
Why, we never would think to teach history creatively and engage our students with real-world projects or presentations if it weren’t for smart guys like him, now, would we?
Excuse me while I go look for an old course outline to just slap into a photocopier and put an end to this actual engaging with teaching, with popular culture and with scholarship nonsense!
No one expects people publishing in science journals to write science for the general public.
As it turns out, there is an entire genre of hand-wringing devoted to scientists’ failure to communicate effectively with the general public. The advice we get is usually condescending to our audiences, “don’t use big words” and so on.
McCullough’s remarks are a subset of the tenured radicalz/pointy-headed nattering nabobs/they work only two hours a week rhetoric that will continue to vex the humanities in the medium term. Even though he doesn’t write about generals and battles, McCullough has benefitted from the contrary notion of history as Manly Rigor. There’s a more positive spin on what he said over at Reclusive Leftist, btw.
Only someone who’s never actually taught little kids doesn’t realize that little kids don’t learn foreign languages or anything else that’s more than minimally complex “in a flash.”
It sounds like his book on Americans in Paris is all about men. Too bad women didn’t exist in history, eh?
ProfinOH and New Kid–thanks for the intel on how other states do it. I suppose the question of credentials for who teaches history in secondary schools is ultimately up to the schools, but as New Kid suggests, it’s a complex series of pushme-pullyous.
At my uni, History-Social Studies Teaching concentrators must take 24 credits of upper-division history courses (and they’re required to take 12-15 credits of non-U.S. history), in addition to all of the ed classes and the broad range of required lower-level econ/poli sci/anthropology/sociology courses. It’s very demanding–and it’s difficult to complete in 4 years unless a student arrives with unusual discipline and focus. But, on balance it seems to prepare the students well enough to start a teaching career.
And Bardiac: David McCullough knows that there was exactly one important woman in American history, and her name was Abigail Adams. Her contribution to U.S. history was to be (along with Barbara Bush) the wife of one president and the mother of another. That’s it for women’s contribution to American history. (When his bio of John Adams came out, he did interview after interview in which he acted like he discovered AA, instead of relying on 3 decades of feminist scholarship–what one of those scholars has called “the Abigail industry.”)
And TriPartite Academic: I think there are lots of historians who have published with trade presses and who have crossed over to write more popular books. There are at least a dozen in my field or related to my field–and I’ve long thought that I might try it.
This old saw that “historians only write for each other, they’re terrible writers” is bullcrap. I think professional historians tend to tell more complex stories that are not necessarily patriotic or celebratory of nationalist myths. Writing about genocidal warfare, racism, slavery, violence against laborers, lynching, sexual violence, etc. is kind of a bummer–and who wants to give those books to Dad for Father’s Day or plop that in Mom’s Christmas stocking? The majority of the book-buying public are white, middle-class, and reasonably prosperous/educated, and they don’t want to read stories in which people like them are cast as the Bad Guys.
But, I think it’s absolutely possible to write a book that’s popular enough to turn on a trade publisher and make a little bank. You probably won’t sell as many books as McCullough, but you’ll still be taken seriously as a scholar (unlike, say, Doris Kerns Goodwin or the late Stephen Ambrose, who had long since jumped the scholarly shark even before the plagiarism became common knowledge.)
“To this day, he remembers Wilder’s teaching that a good writer preserves “an air of freedom” in his prose, so that the reader won’t know how a story will end—even if he’s reading a history book.”
I think the whole historians are bad writers BS also reflects a lack of understanding about what we do when we write, as the above quote suggests. An academic article should have an intro that says what it’s going to do and signposts along the way. It’s not meant to be a surprise, because we are engaging in an argument/ discussion, which is different in intent from writing a novel or some forms of popular history.
That building at 42nd St. and Fifth Avenue; the one with those two stone lions on the front porch?!? I always wondered what was going on inside that place. But I don’t see where this “teaching history as a lab course” focushas any connection with any of the McCullough’s stuff that I know. And how ’bout a documentary on that building at 2265 E. 108th St. in one of the outerboroughs, while we’re at it?
I don’t think he’s all that wrong on number 2, though. It’s not the *amount* of history that Social Science Ed. students don’t take; it’s the insertion of the “pedagogy and methods” stuff into History Departments, where I’m not sure where the expertise is at the faculty level, especially in universities that have Ed. Schools that should do this. And the relentless flood of “mandates” from the Edocracy in the state capitals that constrains not just the “content” curricula that the SSED can be exposed to, but often even the curricula that a subject department can offer to the rest of its students.
Finally, why start a book on American expatriates in Paris in 1830, leaving out that first French Revolution, and why not emphasize that these people in every generation were very intermixed with expatriates from other parts of the world, who were drawn to the same place for different reasons?
If we’re going to get into the war of the currents, I’d say we need even less Edison and way more Tesla. I mean really, whose system are we using today? And yet ask the average American who invented alternating current and they’ll probably say Edison. I furrow my brow in Mr McCullough’s general direction.
Oh, look! You can get a replica of his typewriter as a bookend: http://www.levenger.com/pagetemplates/product/product.asp?params=category=17-805|level=2-3|pageid=7242
I tried to read one of that motherfucker’s books, and it was so painfully boring, I barely made it a third of the way through. If I remember correctly, it was about some military campaigns of the revolutionary war. It was just page after page after page of “this platoon went over this hill, and then snuck over behind this wooded area, and blah, blah, blah”.
Thank you for sharing your thoughts on popular history writing, Historiann. I think it can definitely be done well–even the slightest prospect of taking on such a project has gotten me thinking about what the components are that make it work when it is done well. Suppose I should go look at the examples that I think are successful…
It can also, of course, be done badly. Like Comrade Physio Prof, I’ve never quite understood people’s love affair with McCullough–I don’t find him compelling at all.
@CPP: Most boring third of a book I ever read was “The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant.” Why is it so acclaimed? The author’s race against time to make money?Apparently its fame bugged Bill Clinton when he started to write, made him envious.
Grant siphoned out almost everything that might have interested a 21st c. nonmilitary reader–his family, his feelings, his shifts over time. (With no warning, his son pops up as a preteen about a quarter of the way through, totally undescribed.) Meanwhile … every blade of grass and bend in the rivers, every battle, every plan for a battle, starting with Grant’s time in Mexico.
But I admit there are some wonderful turns of phrase, especially about secession.
As I teach at one of the many schools he visited over the last twenty years, I feel obliged to say that the man is just about the nicest, most gracious guy I’ve ever had the privilege to have met. Perhaps the problem is that he’s so nice that nobody has bothered to explain to him that his opinions about history as a discipline are at least fifty years old and not aging well at all.
@TriPartite Academic: If you’re looking for recent examples, I haven’t read these books, but I recall hearing that _Martyrs and Murderers: The Guise Family and the Making of Europe_, by Stuart Carrol, and _The Cecils: Power and Privilege behind the Throne, by David Loades, are both unusual for being successful “crossover” books. They were both reviewed by “mainstream” publications, and were written under a recent push (funding-crunch related) push in the UK to produce more academic books that could be sold to a general audience. I couldn’t find the review that said that, but a few minutes’ googling did find a joint review of both books in the Economist: http://www.economist.com/node/14793103
I’m going to go against the tide of the discussion above and admit that I did feel a pang of empathy when I read that “the students have no sense of chronology.” That’s exactly what I felt my first year in a PhD program when I took my first official history course, which happened to be a historiography seminar: the professor would assign us around 15 journal articles/chapters per class, that would argue over the importance of Figure X or Influence Y on Event Z, without ever saying who, exactly, Figure X was or what happened during Even Z. I spent many frustrating hours reading those articles that assumed an intimate knowledge of the time they were talking about, and a lot of time on Google that semester trying to figure out who all those people were or what happened that made that year so important!
And I have to add, that a lot (not all, but a not inconsiderable portion), of academic history writing is very, very dry, which is sometimes what non-academics mean when they say academics/historians “write badly.” It’s written to be consumed as argument or information, not entertainment, which seems to lead to many historians adopting a very monotonous tone. I’ve found that those historians who do have a livelier writing style just about leap off the page, especially when you’re reading 3-400 pages of articles in one go (as per my comment above)…and personally, I find those livelier writers are the only ones I can remember. “Writing badly” might be a relative term, but I’m sure we’ve all encountered academic writing that is truly mind-numbing in its dullness…
Well, I’m glad to hear that he is a gracious guest, Jonathan. He doesn’t seem to be very gracious about the work that professional historians do–work he says he depends upon!
LadyProf: you are the only person I’ve heard say they’ve made it through Grant’s memoirs, famous as they are. Bill Clinton’s autobiography is very good–but it’s very long. I admit that I lost interest somewhere in the weeds of his policy analysis of the first year or two of his presidency, and never went back to it.
I remember getting into a dispute with someone in the Greeley, Colorado King Soopers (it’s what they call a Kroger here) about Clinton’s book. My Life had just been published and it was everywhere I turned around, so I picked up a copy at the grocery store to take a look, and a man leaned over conspiratorially and jokingly to say something like it must be a bunch of lies. I raised my eyebrows to ask if he had read it, and he said, “No, have YOU?” I said no I hadn’t, which is why I couldn’t possibly express an opinion on it yet, and he walked away pi$$ed off.
*cough* Bill Cronon and Laurel Thatcher freakin’ Ulrich *cough*.
I mean McCulloch never had a line of his end up on a bumper sticker. Talk about reaching the masses…..
Canuck Down South: I think you’re right that some academic writing is dry, but you young people these days have little ground to complain about compared to those of us who went to grad school in the 1980s or 1990s, when we were still assigned hard-core “cliometrics” books & articles and/or post-structural theory. (I did my readings courses in 1990-92, so I got hit with it all: the undigested social history of the 1970s-80s and then the Bakhtin/Bordieu/Foucault/Butler cultural studies stuff from the late 1980s-early 90s.)
Now, that was rough going. Historians in the past 15 years have learned how NOT to “show their work” and rather to tuck it nicely into their footnotes, thank goodness. If McCullough were speaking 20 or 25 years ago, he might have had a point, but no longer.
‘My question is, how can David McCullough play the role of a celebrated “historian” without considering that the young lady in question 20 years ago might have been thinking about the colonial settlements called New France, Louisiana, Kahokia, Missouri, Santa Fe, and the California missions, none of which are on “the East Coast?” At a “very good university in the Midwest,” chances are that the languages spoken locally 300 and 400 years ago were Algonquian and French, not English.’
Hmm…well, yes, I suppose it’s just barely possible that a college sophomore who didn’t know about the regional/geographic (now “East Coast”) location of the original 13 English colonies might have been confused about the matter because of her subtle and sophisticated understanding of various pre-British colonial encounters. But that seems extremely unlikely to me. So unlikely that I am honestly puzzled by your suggestion that consideration of such a remote possibility should serve as a kind of litmus test for “historian” (or “historiann”?) status.
I mean, c’mon. Snark about his anti-PC comments? Sure, that’s fair game. But the hatefest here (“dirty, rotten, back-stabbing sponger”?!) really seems a bit over the top to me. And some of what McCullough says (about historical illiteracy, e.g.) does ring true, imo.
It’s good to have specialists who dig deep and who offer careful (though “dry”) analyses of complex socio-economic-politico-cultural problems. It’s also good to have generalists who render the results of that research into livelier and more readable (if inevitably oversimplified) narrative prose. And if there is an inevitable tension between those two approaches, well, fine, and of course it’s going to lead to some turf wars, but no need to get so personal and insulting (“up for a laugh” and etc.), surely?
It doesn’t matter what a supposed college sophomore 20 years ago thought about the “original” American colonies. She’s a stock character in a story he’s telling, so I don’t really take her seriously.
What matters is McCullough’s own severely blinkered view of American history, which was the larger point of the post. He is thoroughly satisfied by the idea that the “13 original [English] colonies” is a self-evident fact, whereas I suggest that we think more broadly about who exactly was “original” and what’s a “colony,” and why do we want to limit it to 13, and what’s the ideological goal of talking about just the English jurisdictions on the Atlantic littoral?
People like McCullough criticize the professional study and production of history as though they’re objective, neutral observers, when they’ve actually got a narrow political agenda of their own.
‘What matters is McCullough’s own severely blinkered view of American history, which was the larger point of the post.’
Well, right. And as someone whose initial introduction to American history was via a Canadian (and also Catholic, just to complicate matters) school system (I first read documents pertaining to the American Revolution in a 10th-grade social studies class taught by a French-Canadian nun), I think I am broadly sympathetic to your main point. And the erasure of the French presence in North America in standard American historiography (hello Detroit, Michigan! and also Fond du Lac, Wisconsin! and etc. and etc.) is a bit of a pet peeve of mine.
But in terms of educating an audience of non-specialists towards better-informed citizenship (and let’s face it, by ‘non-specialist,’ I sort of mean ‘completely ignorant,’ or perhaps, and more positively, ‘utterly unencumbered by prior knowledge, suppositions, or facts’), I do think that McCullough has a point. You sort of have to have a firm grasp of the received wisdom before you can effectively subvert it. And while an interrogation of the very meaning of “colony” sends us soaring into a very rarefied atmosphere indeed: well, there are many who cannot, or will not, fly that high; but they should probably still have access to some kind of historical narrative, I think. The more liberal that narrative the better, imo, so, you know, try to build some bridges instead of circling the wagons…
Canuck Down South: Thank you for the book recommendations–if anyone else has some I’d love to hear them–and thank you in general to those of you who have indulged my personally-motivated tangent! 🙂
@Bardiac: better check the book out before judging with such certainty. Emma Willard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt–three of the people the book is “all about.” And it’s not like McCullough wrote Abigail out of his Adams biography either.
@Bardiac: better check the book out before judging with such certainty. Emma Willard, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Mary Cassatt–three of the people the book is “all about.” And it’s not like McCullough wrote Abigail out of his Adams biography either.
He may be a prat re: historians and teachers, but there’s a reason he gets interviews and other publicity like that.
@TriPartite – I’m not sure I would rate this as a “popular” history, although it does get written up in intellectual general book reviews (NY review of books, etc) – John H. Elliott’s Empires of the Atlantic World. He is an extremely lucid, even beautiful, writer. The general (US) public might not be interested in the topics he writes about, but it would be difficult to argue that it has anything to do with his writing skills.
In addition to Historiann’s point about US history as historians teaching it being a Debbie Downer for the middle class white (male) reading public, it’s also true that there is just not much public, non-academic intellectual culture in the US, which narrows down the topics that people will read even more.
H’ann – I definitely think you should write a “popular” or cross over book. My personal belief is that it takes more skill – both scholarly and technically – to write a popular/cross-over book than an academic one. Not because academic books are poorly written garbage, but to synthesize complex material clearly and rigorously – now, that is an art. One has to have a substantial mastery of a given historiography to accomplish that.
Thanks for the encouragement. I think I have the writing chops–I’m just not sure yet if my intellectual interests are likely to attract the attentions of a trade publisher.
And I have to add, that a lot (not all, but a not inconsiderable portion), of academic history writing is very, very dry, which is sometimes what non-academics mean when they say academics/historians “write badly.” It’s written to be consumed as argument or information, not entertainment, which seems to lead to many historians adopting a very monotonous tone. I’ve found that those historians who do have a livelier writing style just about leap off the page…
I think Canuck Down South gets it right here — it’s not so much objectively poor writing, but dry writing cast as bad. And it is bad — for a general audience who isn’t concerned about the nuance of scholar X’s argument versus scholar Y’s argument. The books that one can easily “gut” while reading for prelims/comps/generals are unlikely to be crossover successes.
But there is plenty of rigorous history that I think the public would consume if it were marketed to them. When I think about my own prelims reading, the civil rights literature was, on the whole, livelier than anything else: Payne’s I’ve Got the Light of Freedom, Dittmer’s Local People, Tyson’s Radio-Free Dixie are all still entrenched in my head (I can’t say the same for a lot of labor history that could be written with narratives as rich as civil rights history but is frequently far more dry). When I read Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally when it came out a couple years ago, I remember thinking how compelling the writing was (in addition to a splendid argument about race and marriage politics).
Drew Gilpin Faust’s This Republic of Suffering seems like it was a crossover success — I saw it on plenty of bookstore tables and it was a lucid, engaging read. It was about the Civil War which has a popular following, but I don’t think simply writing about the Civil War is what got her a popular audience. And it wasn’t an uplifting read by any means.
@Tripartite – Writing popular history in the UK is every historian’s new hobby; I am even having a go myself! So, Amanda Vickery’s The Gentleman’s Daughter and her new Behind Closed Doors both straddle the academic/ public divide very succesfully in the UK (she does better than ‘just’ popular history by doing both at once).
There are also numerous fab bios out at the moment, which sell very well. Perhaps the most famous of the moment is Amanda Foreman’s Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire, which became a blockbuster film. That was a PhD that became a best-seller, and it didn’t lose its scholarly rigour in the crossover to the book (let’s not discuss the film!). Another very good biographer (with a PhD though now making a living from her writing alone) is Paula Byrne, who wrote the bestseller Perdita: the life of Mary Robinson as well as other very successful bios. Eleanor Gordon and Gwyneth Nair have a new one on the Victorian ‘alleged’ murderess Madeline Smith, which is both academic and highly entertaining.
Then there is historical fiction in which case I recommend CJ Samson’s murder novels in the Tudor period, which are breathtakingly good; I also enjoy Philippa Gregory’s fictional bios of numerous women.
All these people have PhDs in history (or English Lit in Byrne’s case).
Another popular read is Wendy Moore’s Wedlock, which is a bestseller and fab story, but is written by a journalist and so irritated me quite a lot in its historical misteps- and made me appreciate why historians do popular history so much better!
My dad sent a link to the David McCullough interview, since he firmly believes that p.c. has taken over our universities. I must say that I am somewhat dubious about the veracity of the story about the student not knowing about the 13 original colonies. (How many of us remember exact quotes from 20 years ago? Is it just me who can’t really d that?)
But even if it did happen, I still wondered a few things that made me question McCullough’s idea of what’s “normal” in history teaching and learning. Do we know the student was educated in America? I ask because I teach a reasonably significant number of immigrant students at my university who never actually had a chance to take a class that covered early American history when they were K-12 students. I think it’s utterly wrong headed to assume that all college students are American born and educated and that they all had a common curriculum about early America.
In a broader sense…I wonder how McCullough would talk about other entrenched ignorance in American life. 40%–yes, that’s FORTY PERCENT–of Americans think that God created human beings in their current form 10,000 years ago, rejecting evolution as it applies to people. In other words, they reject one of the key tenets–if not THE key tenet–of modern biology. Good lord, somewhere around one in four or one in three Americans tell pollsters THAT THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH.
I apologize for the all-caps “shouting” here. But as important as I think that Brown v. Board of education was, I think a misunderstanding of the earth’s relationship to the sun is more distressing. And does McCullough think that entrenched opposition to evolution stems from the fact that scientists “write badly”? I get tired of historians being singled out for student ignorance when there are as serious (if not more serious) problems elsewhere.
@Historiann above: Fear not, the grad students of today don’t have it too soft, dry-reading-wise: Foucault/Derrida/Bourdieu etc. are certainly still on the list, although now that they’re not so much dominating the academic zeitgeist they’re treated more like just another tool we’re supposed to recognize and keep handy.
Feminist Avatar’s comment about books becoming movies reminded me that a couple of “crossover” books went the other way, in that they were inspired by their author’s experience a consultants on movies: Stephen Greenblatt’s bestselling _Will in the World_ is one, as well as Natalie Zemon Davis’s _The Return of Martin Guerre_, both books which I’d think are probably still on the shelves of your general-interest bookstore. Does anyone know of more recent examples, or is it rare enough that professors are consulted for movies that it just doesn’t happen all that often?
My cheap paperback edition of another recent example of a bestselling popular-academic book, James Shapiro’s _1599_, makes its popular target audience clear in its packaging: it’s complete with awards won printed in circles on the front and an author interview at the back, including the leading question, “Five Shakespeare Plays I’d Take to a Desert Island” (Hamlet is of course on that list). With the exception, though, of biography/cultural history-like books like this one, it occurs to me that literary scholars must have a much more difficult time breaking into the popular market than historians have. It seems likely that non-academics with an interest in history would pursue their interest by reading history books (along with maybe visiting historical sites or museums), whereas non-academics interested in Shakespeare would be more likely to go to plays and read Shakespeare himself instead of picking up the latest scholarly exposition of _King Lear_.
Historians such as Douglas Brinkley and Richard Norton Smith have both made the same claim that historians today write for academia and not for the general public. And while these sources are essential for other historians, to the general public they’re worthless. Copies sold amount in the hundreds, and if it wasn’t for libraries they would most likely be in the dozens. And McCullough is right, most of them are simply dreadful. This doesn’t mean that they’re not valuable, it simply means that they’re poor reads for the average person.
“I tried to read one of that motherfucker’s books, and it was so painfully boring, I barely made it a third of the way through. If I remember correctly, it was about some military campaigns of the revolutionary war. It was just page after page after page of “this platoon went over this hill, and then snuck over behind this wooded area, and blah, blah, blah”.
Wow–end of argument? Their are too many lousey white writers. I think the whole publishing
industry is to blame? Or, maybe it’s just stupid Americans? Yes–just look at what you read?
If in doubt, look at the New York Times best seller list–now, or for the last twenty years.
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