History will repay your love. You don’t have to be a jerk.

Margaret Chase Smith (1897-1973), Republican U.S. Senator from Maine from 1949 until her death and the subject of numerous biographies.

Peggy Noonan’s column in the Wall Street Journal this weekend, “Why History Will Repay Your Love” (sorry–paywalled!) is an extended advertisement for David McCullough’s latest book, and only secondarily an advertisement for McCullough’s totally original observations about history and its importance. (Get this! John Adams and Thomas Jefferson lived in their present, not our past!  Also, “nothing had to happen the way it happened,” and “knowing history will make you a better person.”)

I pretty much agree with all of McCullough’s bromides, but this one set off my B.S. detector:

We make more of the wicked than the great.  The most-written about senator of the 20th century is Joe McCarthy.  “Yet there is no biography of the Senator who had the backbone to stand up to him first–Margaret Chase Smith,” a Maine Republican who served for 24 years,

Could that possibly be true?  I doubted it, especially because McCullough had written his 2001 biography of John Adams in immaculate ignorance of what one distinguished Abigail Adams scholar had called more than a decade earlier “the Abigail Industry.”  In short, McCullough’s knowledge of women’s history and feminist scholarship runs the gamut from A to B, and it still doesn’t include anything on Abigail Adams.

So I immediately went to my university’s terrible new library catalog (which has ditched entirely the old card-catalog derived system of author/title/subject searches and is instead trying to compete with Google for boolean searches, and failing), and even that craptastic software for our minimalist collection of books turned up half a dozen bios of Smith published in the past two decades or so.  (One was a juvenile biography, the rest were scholarly bios.)  The period 1995-2004 was a rich period for MCS biographies, which were probably inspired by the turn-of-the-century frenzy to wrap up the twentieth century and put a bow on the package.

Why was all of this scholarship utterly invisible to McCullough?  I wonder.  I’m sure it’s because these books weren’t written by him or Doris Kearns Goodwin, and none of them were published by trade presses like Knopf or Doubleday, or even Basic, therefore they don’t exist.  Also–they’re mostly feminist biographies, because (duh!) who else writes books about women, whether or not they ever identified as feminists?

There’s a rich irony here that the Great Historian of Great Men who is so desperately worried about the tragic ignorance of the Kids These Days can’t have bothered to enter “Margaret Chase Smith biography” at books.google.com.  Noonan’s column begins with  a story meant to flatter the convictions of the WSJ readership about the stupidity of youth today and their even dumber teachers and professors.  She notes McCullough’s deep dismay that “a bright Missouri college student. . . thanked him for coming to the campus, because, she said, ‘until now I never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast.’  Another student once asked him:  ‘Aside from Harry Truman and John Adams, how many other presidents have you interviewed?'”

I’m betting that those of us who actually work with young people could tell stories like this–but that would be unkind and ungracious to those who trust us to work with them where they are and make them more informed and better readers and writers than when they walked into our classrooms the first time.  I wonder how those students–if they actually exist–feel now being mocked in McCullough’s book and now the Wall Street Journal for (maybe) using the the word “interviewed” in his question instead of “written about?”  Or who may have grown up in Missouri and never really thought about the history and geography of the Anglo-American Atlantic World before she got to college?

Increasingly, I feel like my charge–our charge as educators–is to serve and protect the young against the insults and arrogance of my peers and elders.

Perhaps it’s a good job McCullough never sullied himself as a classroom teacher or professor, because any professor or teacher who would mock students for venial intellectual sins like these is an obnoxious jerk.  But we should not be surprised that McCullough acts like a jerk and a bully, because he writes the kinds of books that would lead us to believe he identifies strongly with the powerful and the privileged–mostly biographies of presidents and inventors.

As I write in my latest book, The Many Captivities of Esther Wheelwright, “It’s better business to write about the rich and famous, because there’s already a built-in audience of book buyers for that latest biography of John Adams, George Washington, Andrew Jackson, or Abraham Lincoln [or one might add, Harry Truman or the Wright Brothers, &c.]. It’s easier and more fun for middle-class North American readers to identify with rich and powerful individuals rather than the victims of history. Schoolyard bullies know this instinctively: we all want to identify with winners instead of losers,” 10.

I’m sure the plutocrats who read the WSJ Weekend felt very satisfied with themselves after reading Noonan’s advertorial for McCullough’s book.  (You can Google it yourself if you’re curious–this is an advertisement-free blog, so I won’t post a link to it.)  We olds have to imagine ourselves superior to the young in some ways, because they have all of the beauty, strength, creativity, and optimism that we no longer have in great measure, because life beats most of that out of us by age 40 or 50.  And time!  Alas, they have all the time, and we–we don’t.  We hear the clock’s insistent ticking.  We can see the sand streaming to the bottom of the hour glass.  We have knowledge, but knowledge isn’t wisdom if you’re using it as a weapon, or a marketing tool to sell your books to old snowflakes who want history as therapy, or as a flattering mirror rather than naked truth-telling.

The olds these days!  If only we would learn some real history, it might eventually make us better people.

42 thoughts on “History will repay your love. You don’t have to be a jerk.

  1. “but knowledge isn’t wisdom if you’re using it as a weapon, or a marketing tool to sell your books to old snowflakes who want history as therapy, or as a flattering mirror rather than naked truth-telling.” Yipes! That’s going to leave a mark! Good.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Here’s hoping!

      I love the WSJ Weekend – I disagree with it 96% of the time, but they employ great writers. I frequently love Peggy Noonan, who is a fantastic writer whatever you think of her opinions. This week’s column was such a disappointment – almost an “I opened the press packet myself” that is truly unworthy of her, esp. with that bagatelle of cruelty at the expense of a few unsophisticated college students in Missouri.

      It was unworthy of her, although I’m afraid the column was pretty worthy of McCullough, who’s just a jerk and a bully.

      Like

  2. McCullough’s mockery of these students reminds me of certain professors who publish malapropisms from their students’ exams on Facebook and elsewhere. Even though they don’t use names, it’s such a gross violation of these students’ trust. And what’s the point? To show off that we know something that other people don’t? Are we so desperate to justify our existence that we have to demean those who don’t know things we know?

    I’m sure these bullies would say no–they’re calling out people who *should* know certain things. I guess they think these students are ignorant because of their own laziness, and not because–I don’t know–they’ve been let down by the system that was supposed to educate them.

    In any case, historians mocking them on Facebook or in the Wall Street Journal does not help them at all. Maybe we should teach them instead!

    There’s an old joke that should be a mantra for all historians and educators: “An ignorant person is one who doesn’t know what you have just found out.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Full confession: when I first started blogging (10 years ago, almost!), I was a regular reader and fan of Rate Your Students, which was a mean-spirited blog that was an outlet for faculty complaints about students. I guess it scratched an itch I didn’t know I had for a little while. (If any of you remember, RYS was too cool for school, and probably written by a bunch of Ivy Leaguers or Ivy-Leaguer wannabes who took unseemly pleasure in putting their students down. I’m not proud of my RYS-reading days, but as I recall they also published a lot of bitching about colleagues & administrators too, but maybe that’s a self-serving memory.)

      Then, RYS went after a fellow blogger who became an online friend of mine because she 1) is proud of teaching at a “directional” public university where she knows her work makes a difference in people’s lives, 2) was a working-class kid and a graduate of similar kinds of institutions and was proud of it, and 3) wrote posts in which she was optimistic about the power of education to change people’s lives. I know–how ridiculous, right? I got over RYS pretty fast at that point–they were just being mean.

      Maybe I’m just extra-sensitive to faculty bullying because of my experience with this blog, but even before and during my RYS-reading days, I never liked the blogs by faculty who just bitched about their students. I mean, how interesting is that? Is it really so satisfying to remind yourself that you know more than the average undergrad at your institution? Like, wow.

      Liked by 2 people

      • I was a reader and very occasional commenter at RYS. I don’t disagree with you about the ickiness of mocking students (I taught freshman history at the University of Missouri; yes the students were provincial. No, that wasn’t their fault. My job was to help them broaden their worldviews, not insult and discourage them. I enjoyed working with them and felt that my work was important and meaningful.)

        But in fairness to RYS, a lot of the griping there was about student behavior, not intellect. I saw it as a water cooler for professors frustrated with and hobbled by administrations plagued by a student-as-consumer mentality. That mentality makes it hard for professors to teach and encourage basic life skills like responsibility for deadlines, appropriate communication with professors, and handling feedback and criticism. In short, I saw good people exasperated by the system within which they were forced to work rather than mean-spirited professors going for the student jugular. Of course, I’m generalizing, and I’m sure there were posts that you and I would be equally appalled by.

        Thank you for this excellent post; I really enjoyed it and admire your work. Best wishes.

        Liked by 1 person

      • On its better days, yes, RYS was about behavior of students AND colleagues, who can most def. be asses. On its worse days, it was just mean and cynical (but like eating potato chips, I couldn’t stop once I was in the bag). In the end, I thought its schtick wore a little thin. I will say this: RYS taught me a lot about the kind of blog persona I did and did not want to cop!

        I wonder if we get more forgiving of our students foibles or less as we age. I remember feeling much more irritation at students and their antics when I was younger, so I wonder if that wasn’t a kind of defensive move on my part–that I had to insist even to myself that I was not like my students. Now I find them only occasionally irritating, and mostly endearing in their goofiness.

        I don’t (yet) have a college-aged kid, but I remember hearing once from a former proffie that once his daughter went to college, he started seeing his students as someone else’s children & so had more sympathy for their struggles and learning curves. I remember thinking (at the very wise age of 22) that that seemed kind of pathetic and solipsistic–that he couldn’t see his students as other people’s kids until his own kids got to that age, but now I kind of identify. Maybe raising middle schoolers/teenagers softens us up. Maybe it’s just age and exhaustion that prevents us from feeling the irritation we may have once felt.

        Liked by 1 person

    • I never read Rate Your Students, but I was certainly guilty of complaining about my students on FB and liking the same when my friends posted their gripes. I didn’t do it a lot, and I did not make fun of their ignorance, but mainly their behavior. But in retrospect, this was wrong for the reasons Bill Black and Historiann articulate here. Students don’t know how to write professional emails, they don’t know how to take notes, they have a hard time interacting with adults and its our job to help them figure that out.

      I think becoming a parent might have helped me see my students in a different light. (Watching a newborn try to poop during their first couple of days life made me realize that humans have to learn how to do _everything_). But you know what really helped was realizing that I was still learning to do my job as a teacher during my first five to seven years at Lake Woebegone State. After five years, I realized I didn’t know half as much as I thought about teaching. It took me two more years to learn how to learn about teaching. Finally, my non-academic spouse helped me realize that getting mad at students for what they didn’t know already, or failed to learn over the semester was ultimately counter productive. I feel lucky to have learned this lesson and I hope I have the ability to keep learning it, because not everyone does.

      Compassion and kindness has made my teaching a lot better and reduced my stress levels immensely. I hand out extensions and make up exams freely but I don’t have any more late papers or weird excuses for missing exams, than in semesters past. Every semester a couple more students manage finish the work they needed to do to pass my class. I don’t feel the need to complain about their behavior or mistakes. In fact, I am excited to share their successes with friends and colleagues.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for sharing part of your journey, Matt. I identify with what you say about the 5- and 7-year marks of your career!

        IMHO, effective teaching means always evolving and rethinking everything. As my friend Jonathan Rees always says over at More or Less Bunk (paraphrasing here): if you can be replaced by a computer, you’re doing it wrong. Professors and teachers need to be active in the argument as to why we can’t be replaced with software or AI.

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  4. Yes!!!

    An aside: Your library has also ditched the functional *library catalog* for a New, Super Shiny, Google-type search box that actually works even less effectively than the real Google Scholar? Ours did too, apparently without any consultation with librarians. How did this travesty happen? Did all the IT directors go to the same conference where Whatever Edutech Inc. gave a flashy presentation and immediately run home to buy it? How can we fight back?

    Liked by 1 person

    • I keep asking our subject area librarian to bring back a simple author/subject/title function box to the book searches, but haven’t gotten anywhere yet. Too many libraries are run by people who now see books as tiresome nuisances, rather than the single best technology for preserving scholarship ever invented.

      I know some will complain that books are not convenient and instantly accessible. But this bug is a feature: it also means that they can’t be eliminated by a hacker or with the push of a few buttons the way that digital libraries can be. Ever since we solved the problem of fire 150 years ago or so, paper (& books as compact and indexed as they are) is the best storage technology out there.

      Like

    • same here, to the point where there are several items I can find only because I have saved the overdue notices with call numbers. Our catalog was actually quite good, increasingly even incorporating several databases so as not to necessitate as many separate searches. All of the sudden, it’s a pos. Now my process is: search for book I ordered myself and have previously used, find jackshit, buy book from amazon. Major works are buried deep or not findable at all. And I have decades of experience sorting through this kind of mess: how on earth can I ask students to use this tool to create anything with scholarly integrity? Librarian offered to train me. Like that isn’t a giant warning flag all by itself: if you need to train profs to use the new library catalog, how will students operate it? Shocking downgrade

      Liked by 1 person

      • Oh, I’m so sorry. I totally get where you’re coming from because YOUR SCREAMS ARE COMING FROM WITHIN MY HOUSE! Sadly!

        Like

      • “And I have decades of experience sorting through this kind of mess: how on earth can I ask students to use this tool to create anything with scholarly integrity?”

        YES YES YES YES YES!!!!

        To be fair, our librarians were totally sideswiped by the change, and they are as frustrated as faculty. Our system does at least have a “browse” search that functions somewhat like the old catalog (at least allows basic AU, TI, SU searches that are mostly but not entirely reliable), but it is buried so deep in the various advanced settings that you would never ever find it on your own. It makes teaching students how to use the library into a farce.

        Liked by 1 person

      • Since posting this yesterday, I’ve had a private email from a librarian at a university who has been labeled “reactionary” because he’s pointed out the very problems we’re talking about. Here’s what he reported when trying to look up my bibliography, which is pretty much what I’ve observed too:

        We too are using the same systems as you and they are made by Ex Libris which is “a ProQuest Company.” Rather than teaching people to think about information, we overload them with a host of results, the googlization of library catalogs. I typed in your name as an author without your middle initial and using contains (rather than exact or starts with) and got 223 results. When I added the M, I got 83. One can only hope any evaluation of your work uses this same library catalog and decides that you are exceptionally prolific!

        Ridiculous.

        Like

  5. A beautiful piece in all ways. I especially share your despair at the mockery of the students. I’ve taken on a new position at my university that has me handling academic misconduct charges (one of the things I have to do, and not the thing I took the job for) and what throws me into either rage or depression is the contempt, vindictiveness and callousness of some of the professors who report charges.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks! And dog bless for taking on that assignment. It sounds like you believe that a large proportion of cases of academic dishonesty you investigate are due to professors not explaining their expectations & assignment directions clearly enough. I think that’s something most of us need to think about and work on.

      Like

      • Yes, all current and future college professors could use a faculty development day devoted to writing instructions and explaining what the goals of an assignment are. Some of the assignment sheets I have seen rolling off the department printers look like they came from the desk of the Unabomber. (Rule of thumb, do not use ALL CAPS and single spaced paragraphs on your essay assignment sheets unless you want to see this in your students’ papers.)

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  6. Focus on the feelings of unnamed (perhaps nonexistent) students has led your attention away from the substance of the article. The point of the piece is that we must redouble our efforts to teach history to our kids. The comments are not intended to demean any specific person or group, they were used to highlight a need to increase efforts to educate our kids and all generations about historical events and the ideas and concepts that flow from these events. Whether one writes about George Washington or Harriet Tubman, it is unlikely there would be much argument from a true historian regarding expanding the coverage of history study. However, you cannot blame one for focusing on those areas that particularly interest the historian. Thankfully, we have many historians with different interests and perspectives to help broaden our knowledge. We should be receptive to and accept attempts to help us expand our knowledge. If we don’t, are we not closing our mind and are we not guilty of the same alleged bullying.

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    • Ed, but the point is that at the same time they are ridiculing 18-20 year olds for not knowing what they know (shocking!) McCullough and company are literally ignorant of their own ignorance. Perhaps it would be better instead of mocking someone with less experience that they use their own ignorance as an example. But they won’t, and that is the point. Knowledge to McCullough and others is a tool to amass and worship power.

      Liked by 2 people

  7. There have been departments that put these kinds of snide things about students as a regular feature in their annual departmental newsletter, where it is circulated among at least alums who were majors, as well as internally to colleagues. We should do a call-out on ourselves as undergraduates, i.e., disembed from the actual or virtual archive some of our own cringe-worthy displays of unguarded ignorance, which did not prevent us from ascending into the professoriate, or into distributors of historical knowledge. So here’s mine: In a freshman geology course, on a field trip report, I misspelled the name of the town in which my school was located, repeatedly, which also meant misspelling the name of the creek through which we had splashed the previous week gathering up knowledge about sedimentary sequences, along with the occasional fossilized trilobite. The prof. put a marginal tic next to each misspelling, which my eye or ear translated into at worst a raised eyebrow or a tisk, tisk, but took off no “points,” the currency-of-the realm in that eco-system. He even gratuitously praised a few of my puerile observations about interesting shale conformities and dolomite intrusions. I toyed with majoring in the subject!

    On library information systems, it’s definitely a case of technology acquisitions people (but also a few management-level librarians) running wild at Vendocracy conferences, that lead to this lamentable situation. The death of the author was the easy part. Now title and subject have leaped onto the funeral pyre. It’s all content now, and literacies about content, and the husk (i.e., the cover) is just so much irrelevance. The ag or vet schools can paint their cutting-edge findings on the sides of Jersey cows (but not Holsteins). Crim. can machine gun the latest wisdom about recidivism into the windshields of 1930s gangster black cars. Who cares? Relevance is where it’s at when it comes to search. (Which anyone who lived through the ’60s knows is a sorry joke). Of relevance, now that I think about it, I also forgot to mention McCullough here, because…. I forget!! A trenchant post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Most of us have enjoyed the suffrance (if not the actual suffering) of former proffies who indulged our youthful enthusiasms and pretensions and bouts of solipsistic ignorance. Just as we indulged their terrible fashion sense, bad breath, weird hairdos, and the like because they were mostly really smart, and some were even fun and kind of cool.

      It’s an intergenerational pact that will hold only if the adults who are paid to show up can keep it together and try to be kind and understanding. I am doing my level best, now that I’m the one with the horrible clothes, bad breath, and weird hair!

      Like

    • We have something similar but IIRC I always have to search around and produce needless, pointless clicks to get there. And then it still doesn’t work as well as the old catalog!

      Midprof’s comments above totally describe my experiences w/this new system, and my emotional breakdown over it. Blargh.

      Like

  8. McCullough is a revered icon where I currently live (Charleston, SC). I’ve never read anything he’s written because I’m not interested in the subjects that he covers. From my time in public schools here to my first experience in college learning about world history, I am now careful in scrutinizing anything to do with the history of the South. Why? Because I was one of those students mislead in high school to believe in “heritage not hate” and the other “alternative facts” of the Civil War. (I’m not suggesting McCullough is one of those, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t read his work). That said, I was definitely one of those students that asked “stupid” questions in college because I had no clue about critical thinking and the history of SC. I am eternally grateful for the thoughtful care and responses that my professors took with me then and even on into my graduate studies because I honestly didn’t know enough to phrase it right or to know what to say in an intelligent manner. I would be deeply hurt if I knew that they had made fun of me, especially in a public fashion. I feel like that kind of mockery leads to people wanting to stop learning and asking questions and to stick to their misunderstood ideas.

    Anyhow, that’s all. Excellent post! Glad I found you 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your comment. I’m glad your professors were kind and helpful. I think most of us are, or at least try to be. Your story shows how being thoughtful and helping students ask different/better questions can lead them to better historical thinking.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Having grown up in Maine, the Notorious MCS is well-known to me, so my eyebrows also shot upward at the reference to zero biographies about her. “That doesn’t seem right!” And as you pointed out, it’s not…but she’s also far from a household name.
    At the risk of raising the ire of your readers, I must point out David McCullough’s overall point was quite respectful and reverent to Senator Smith: “who had the backbone to stand up to [McCarthy] first.”

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sure – but doesn’t respect for the woman also entail doing a minimal amount of due diligence? Srsly! As I say in the blog post, this is all of a piece in which McCullough likes to pretend that he’s discovered something (esp. re: women’s history) all by himself, rather than acknowledging the existence of any scholarship on the subject.

      Like

  10. I remember hearing Garrison Keillor say something to the effect that there is nobody on the planet more parochial than a denizen of the Five Boroughs of New York City. I think that this applies to David McCullough and historians of his ilk. What he meant to say was that David McCullough hadn’t written a biography of Margaret Chase Smith yet, therefore the definitive biography has yet to be written.

    I can’t stand the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times. They are just as dishonest and ideologically blinkered as Pravda and Izvestia were in the Brezhnev years. I suppose they are worth reading so that you can get insight into the official mind or to watch the tacking to and fro of the party line, but I can’t stomach it anymore and won’t subscribe.

    Liked by 2 people

    • What he meant to say was that David McCullough hadn’t written a biography of Margaret Chase Smith yet, therefore the definitive biography has yet to be written.

      HAhaha! Yes.

      My spouse & I subscribe to the Weekend WSJ mostly because the writing is terrific, and I want to reward a newspaper that hires and pays for great writers & writing. Yes, the editorial page is garbage, and as you say, like Pravda or Izvestia in their predictability, BUT Peggy Noonan is a great writer! The news reporters are great reporters and writers, too. The book review section is the best of any U.S. publication, and Dan Neill is so brilliant and entertaining that I TURN FIRST to the car & motorcycle reviews, if I can grab that section before my husband gets his mitts on it! (And I drive a banged up 2008 Prius, which tells you how much I care IRL about cars and coolness.) The fancy watch reviews are pretty hilarious, and I even love their obits and the M.S. Rau antiques advertisements. It’s a full-service newspaper in one slim weekly.

      Seriously, Matt–you should give it a read sometime. Although their reviews of books on the war of the Revolution and the U.S.Civil War are pretty tiresome in their regularity, they also review serious European histories too. (True, a load of WWI books these days, as you might expect, and lots of Churchill/WWII from the British-inflected allies’ perspective.) But do you get that in the WaPo or even the NYT Sunday Book review?

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      • I have not gotten either WaPo or NYTimes since around 2006-07. I look at them oin-line when friends or family share specific stories. I used to subscribe to the New York Review of Books, but its way to clubby in that NYC way.

        You are right, we should pony up for great writing. The missus and I subscribe to The New Yorker, but they don’t have car or motorcycle reviews! (I’m an unrepentant gear-head. Before I went to grad school I used to subscribe to a journal called “Race Car Engineering” so I am a sucker for good writing about cars and motorcycles.) Maybe I’ll give the weekend WSJ a try. I appreciate the recommendation.

        What is it with the White American Male Churchill fetish? Its especially pronounced among right wingers, but even the center left democrat cannot not resist a little Churchill frottage when the opportunity presents itself. Men and teen age boys on the left have a similar problem with George Orwell. Thomas Ricks was on Fresh Air the other night plumping his double biography on Orwell and Churchill. I guess he can really cash in on that one.

        Liked by 1 person

      • You will LOVE Dan Neill. The subscription will be worth it for his reviews alone. This is the guy who won a Pulitzer Prize for his CAR REVIEWS when he was at the LA Times, another newspaper that still employs great writers.

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  11. As one library administrator reportedly said (I didn’t hear it directly): “Books are an underperforming asset class.” The emphasis is on speed and gratification. Books sent to offsite storage, foreign language acquisitions declining, the library becoming a space for people to acquire office supplies

    Liked by 1 person

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