Should Historians Oppose Trump?

Stanley Fish, who is not a historian, came to Denver and told historians to stop engaging with politics.  Watch the video from History News Network:

I’ve written a lot about this over the last year.  Anything I write here would just be repetitive.  I also hesitate to write more because I did not attend the session.  Here is Fish’s essay for some context.

Here is what I have written about this topic over the last year or so:

Why I Signed “Historians Against Trump”

Why the “Pietist Schoolman” Signed the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

Yet Another Opinion on “Historians Against Trump”

Why Jonathan Zimmerman is Not Signing the “Historians Against Trump” Letter

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

Historical Thinking and Political Candidates

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

No Empathy for Trump?

More Jedi Mind-Tricks

5 thoughts on “Should Historians Oppose Trump?

  1. Fish’s original piece (I don’t know whether he’s refined his argument) describes –without any actual examples — historians’ work as so narrow that it can be of interest only to other academic historians; and it asserts that they base their claim to speak publicly on their academic credentials, by which I guess he means the PhD.

    Regarding the assumption that historical subfields as such bear no relevance for non-historians in the present: most historians who write for the living rely on contemporary theoretical frameworks and analytical categories (often drawn from other fields), and they are often explicitly engaged in answering questions about the origins of present-day phenomena of general concern. Fish also simply ignores the longstanding existence of non-academic readers of historical work, and of historians writing (with political intent or not) for a wide readership, of public and contemporary history as disciplines, and so on.

    The second assumption is also dubious, assuming the “credential” in question is the PhD. First, even some high-profile historians who pronounce on public affairs, and many others involved in public history and in writing and teaching, do not hold the PhD. Anyway, the PhD itself means something only insofar as it indicates specific forms of training and a body of work on a specific subject (on which expertise can, even on Fish’s account, be claimed). It’s the work that matters, and the work is often of some relevance to the world beyond the academy.

    It’s odd that Fish should demand specialists keep within the walls of their academic disciplines even as he clambers over the walls of his own, credentials in hand, to tell others their business. But what really struck me is that he seemed in the NYT piece not even to have read up on what historians do when they *are* doing academic work in academic settings; it’s a very naive picture that he paints, both of disciplinary purity (even within strictly academic contexts) and of historical method. I wonder whether his ideas is any more nuanced now.


  2. Dr. Fish is deeply practiced in discussing law and literature according to his CV. He is also quite interested in writing about the connected issues of intellectual freedom, free speech, and political correctness found on our campuses and in our communities. He presents himself as a “public intellectual” who we should listen to due to his impressive credentials, academic degrees, and experience in teaching. Yet historians should not use their knowledge of the past they have mastered to present an informed opinion on how candidate (now President-Elect) Trump shares many of the same characteristics of many of the demagogues found throughout history. Surely historians have the right to use their talents and knowledge to present an informed opinion that people are free to discuss and debate based on the merits of the argument. Maybe Dr. Fish believes that such opinions should be limited to well-known public intellectuals like himself. Historians have no claim on stating that the events of the past will accurately predict the future. However, we should listen when they present examples from the past to better inform us on how to understand the events of today.

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  3. It’s odd that his complaint targets having an advanced degree. So he’s saying that having an advanced degree in history does not confer on one “the wisdom that should allow people to listen to your political advice.” There are a couple odd issues with his statement, but leaving those aside for the moment, I wonder what advanced degree * would * confer that wisdom to a person, in Mr. Fish’s mind? Is there any advanced degree in any field that confers wisdom upon its recipient? Am I going too far in reading some anti-academia or anti-intellectualism into his approach?

    An advanced degree is training, not wisdom. It reflects having obtained a certain level of competency in a methodology, an approach to a subject. Any wisdom gained in that subject, and I’m not sure what he may mean by “wisdom,” but in my broad understanding of that term any wisdom gained in a subject will derive not from the degree but the years of committed, disciplined study of that subject, and the insights one might gain from closely examining the many facets of human society and how we have lived in the past. Now, there’s an argument to be had about what constitutes a good political candidate, but if I choose to take seriously the input of someone with an advanced degree — let’s say, a historian, or an economist, an anthropologist, an archaeologist, a sociologist, mathematician, physicist, etc.; and they arguably could all add some interesting observations about what makes a good political candidate — my interest in their opinions would, again, derive not from their degrees but the research they’ve done and how that might relate to some interesting insights into our current political and etc. challenges. Folks working in the humanities would be of particular interest, or so think I. I wish we could hear the late historian William Sheridan Allen’s opinions on the rise of Trump, as I think his area of study might be pertinent.

    Finally, I’m not sure there is any value in a group * not * providing an opinion in a democracy, so I’m a little disturbed that someone should suggest that any group shouldn’t contribute to public debates. He has every right to question what value a historian brings to a political debate, and I would welcome that as an opportunity for historians to better explain their craft to the lay public.

    And disclosure: I am not a historian.

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