Day By Day

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Academic Elitism

In his marvelous essay on Irish historiography, titled The Irish Story, Telling Tales and Making It Up in Ireland, Roy Foster has this to say:

Historians are often exhorted to write for 'the general reader', and some try to -- though for most practicing academics, the 'general reader' is a bit like the stray neighbourhood cat: you feel vaguely sympathetic towards it, you know it's someone's responsibility to look after it, but you're damned if you're going to do it yourself.
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So true, so true....

He's right. What is more, most academic historians deprecate the efforts of those who do produce "popular history". To some extent this disdain is justified -- all too often popular history is simplistic or reductive, and even the best of the genre often comes down to little more than uncritical hagiography [I'm talkin' bout you David], silly ethnic or regional boosterism [you too, Senator], or partisan hackery [and you Sean]. But it would be a mistake to believe that academic history is not plagued by the same sort of nonsense. Some of the most partisan silliness I have ever read was published in respected academic journals. What is unjustified is not the critique of popular history, but the arrogant assumption that academic history represents unbiased, disinterested authority. What is needed is for academic historians to get down off their high horses, admit their biases, and to present their ideas and arguments clearly and succinctly. I am encouraged by the fact that so many young academics have taken to blogging. The best of them bring to their blogs an informed critical perspective as well as a willingness to present their arguments in terms the general public will accept.

One of the best of these -- although I seldom find myself in agreement with him -- is Tim Burke, over at Swarthmore. Check out his blog here. It's worth reading. And for a different perspective check out Marc Comtois' excellent efforts at Spinning Clio [here]