Historians (and assorted others) on the Usefulness of Historical Analogies in This Election Cycle


Is Donald Trump the next Andrew Jackson

Andrew Ferguson, Richard Brookhiser, Allen Guelzo, David Reynolds, Jill Lepore, Robert Merry, George Nash, Eric Foner, Amity Shales, George Will, and Jon Meacham have contributed to a piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “History Repeats as Farce.”

Here is a taste:

“Ransack history how you will looking for antecedents, there aren’t any,” says George F. Will, the dean of conservative columnists. Jill Lepore, a professor of American history at Harvard, dismisses the journalistic temptation to ask: “ ‘What is this like? What are the parallels?’ I tend not to think that way.” She believes 2016 is “uncharted territory, really. It’s not like any other election, in a deep, structural way, because there are too many variables and no constants.” These include the potential for “gross abuses of power” by a President Trump, new modes of mass communication like social media and what may be an epochal political realignment.

Robert Merry, a biographer of President James Polk, thinks such a shift is under way. The status quo is never permanent, and the post-Franklin Delano Roosevelt Cold War consensus about globalization and internationalism, he says, “has been killed by Donald Trump, for all his flaws and limitations. What we know from history is that when the identity and definition of the nation is at stake, the politics gets very intense.”

In such periods of upheaval there is often “a recrudescence of populism, a revolt of ordinary people against overbearing and self-serving elites,” says George Nash, who studies the postwar conservative intellectual movement. He distinguishes between “anti-capitalist” left-wing versions that oppose wealth and corporate power, like the prairie populism of William Jennings Bryan at the turn of the last century, and more recent “anti-statist” right-wing populism that opposes big government, like the tea party (circa 2009, not 1773). Mr. Trump’s ideology confounds, he says, because it is “a hybrid of both manifestations.”

Eric Foner, of Columbia University, also sees Mr. Trump as “reflecting things that have been around in our politics in one form or another and now somehow joined together in one campaign.” The businessman is a merger of Ross Perot in 1992, who “raised the question of the loss of jobs through trade agreements,” and George Wallace in 1968, “appealing to white people’s sense that they’re losing out in some way.”

Read the entire piece here.

Writing History for the Public

a1b2a-writingI am almost positive that at some point in the last seven years I have written a post with the same title as this one, but I am too lazy to check.  (OK–I just checked. A few have come close, but it looks like I have not written anything with the exact title).

I have stolen the title of this post from Jaime McClennen’s short post at Historical Communication.  If you are a graduate student or academic historian interested in writing history for the public I encourage you to check out some of McClennen’s links, including pieces by Michael Hattem and Liz Covart (published at The Way of Improvement Leads Home), and some of my own reflections on the subject.  (Thanks for the link, Jaime!).

Here is a taste of my January 2016 post “Some Autobiographical Reflections on Doing ‘Academic History’ and Writing for Public Audiences“:

…If everything goes well, sometimes academic history finds its way to the public.  But often times it does not.  The old quip about academics writing scholarly articles that only a small number people read is mostly true.

I applaud people who write academic monographs and publish scholarly articles.  I am just not sure I want to do it any more.  Did I just commit a certain kind of professional suicide by saying this?  Maybe.  Or maybe I did that a long time ago.

Over the last half-decade or so, ever since Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction appeared and garnered attention as a finalist for the George Washington Book Prize, I realized that my vocation as a historian was less about writing for my peers and more about reaching the public with my work.

I still try to keep one foot in the professional world of academic history.  I attend conferences, write book reviews when asked, try to stay abreast of new work, and serve as an outside reviewer of book and article manuscripts.  I try to expose the readers of The Way of Improvement Leads Home to the latest scholarship in the field through The Author’s Corner feature at the blog.  I continue to network with my academic friends and colleagues because I want to remain in conversation with very smart people who love to talk about history.  As a college teacher I also think these connections are important for my students, especially when I write letters of recommendation to supplement their graduate school applications.  So by no means have I left academia or the world of professional history.

But I am losing my passion for writing academic history. Perhaps I have already lost it. The last scholarly article I published in a history journal was my piece on Philip Vickers Fithian and the rural Enlightenment.  It appeared in The Journal of American History in 2003.  Granted, I have written scholarly essays that have appeared in edited collections and other venues, but these were mostly pieces that I was invited to write. I still have a few ideas for scholarly essays percolating in my head.  Sometimes I wonder if they will ever see the light of print.

My first book, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America, gave me my first glimpse of the power of non-academic story-telling.  As a scholarly monograph, the book covers some sophisticated ground.  I write about the “rural enlightenment,” the “public sphere,” “cosmopolitanism” and “local attachments.”  But when I spoke (and continue to occasionally speak) about the book before public audiences I found that people were most attracted to the tragic life of Philip Vickers Fithian.  They didn’t care about the “rural enlightenment.”  Instead they wanted to know Fithian’s story.  They wanted to hear about his love affair with Elizabeth Beatty.  They wanted to hear about his experiences on the Pennsylvania frontier and what it was like to attend college at 18th-century Princeton. The K-8 teachers who attend my Gilder-Lerhman seminar at Princeton on colonial America have told me on more than one occasion that the book’s last chapter moved them to tears.

I was shocked when people dropped $30.00 for a copy of The Way of Improvement Leads Home and asked me to sign it. I was also a bit embarrassed because I knew that in the book the dramatic story I had told them in the talk was wedged between a lot of theoretical discussion that could make it a disappointing read.  (Maybe this is why in the last couple of years I have found at least three signed copies of the book on the shelves of used bookstores).

My experience with The Way of Improvement Leads Home convinced me to write with those people who attended my book talks in mind.  And then I started this blog and realized that I could reach more people with one post than I could with any journal article or scholarly monograph.

At some point along the way I was forced to reckon with the careerism that defines academic life. I am sure that there are many historians who write academic history for their peers out of a sense of vocation.  They love to advance knowledge and feel called to do it, even if very few people will read what they write. But there are others who would balk at the approach to doing the kind of public history I described above because it might be considered a bad career move.  I understand this critique.  An article in the William and Mary Quarterly brings much more prestige among one’s fellow academic peers than a blog post or a book published with Westminster/John Knox or Baker Academic. Articles in prestigious journals can lead to “good” jobs at research universities and a whole lot of respect.  We are fooling ourselves if we think that the writing of academic history is not embedded in a narrative of social climbing and careerism.  Should academic historians write to advance new knowledge in the context of the noble pursuit of a scholarly life?  Of course.  Is it difficult to separate this noble pursuit from rank careerism and ambition?  Of course.

In 2002 I found a dream job–teaching American history at Messiah College.  From the perspective of the profession and the academy, Messiah College is, in more ways than one, an outpost.  But being at a place like Messiah has made it much easier for me to think about my calling as a historian in ways that are fundamentally different than the academic culture I imbibed as a graduate student.  And this is freeing.

Read the entire piece.

No Empathy for Trump?


Darryl Hart of Hillsdale College has been on my case ever since I announced that I signed Historians Against Trump.

First, let me say that I have great respect for Darryl as a scholar and a historian and I have a lot of fun engaging with him.  He may not remember this, but in 1992 he served as the outside reader on my church history M.A. thesis at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.  I am grateful for his recent review of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society in last week’s Wall Street Journal.  I appreciate the attention he shows to my work, especially what I write at this blog.

In today’s post at his blog, Old Life, Hart wonders why I have not criticized Hillary Clinton as much as Donald Trump.  He is not the only one who has brought this up.

Here is what Hart wrote today in response to my recent post on Trump, evangelicals and the Supreme Court.

Shouldn’t historians, because they have seen this stuff before, not be surprised or outraged by Trump? Might they even imagine through empathy what it feels like to find Trump attractive? Not saying I do, mind you. I just like to point out how one-sided his opponents can be and how they don’t seem to learn the lessons of history. Like this?

But can evangelicals really trust Trump to deliver on his Supreme Court promises? According to the bipartisan website PolitiFact, 85 percent of the claims Trump has made on the campaign trail (or at least the statements PolitiFact checked) are either half true or false. (Compare that with Clinton, at 48 percent).

Of course many evangelicals will respond to such an assertion by claiming that at least they have a chance to change the court with Trump. Though he may be a wild card, evangelicals believe that Clinton would be much more predictable. A Clinton presidency would result in a crushing blow to the Christian right’s agenda — perhaps even a knockout punch.

So this is where many evangelicals find themselves. They want the Supreme Court so badly they are willing to put their faith and trust in someone who is nearly incapable of telling the truth.

Let’s remember that choosing the lesser of two evils is still choosing evil.

Fair enough. But when oh when will that point also be used against Hillary who seems to have a little trouble with the truth?

The people are calling. Historical understanding doesn’t seem to be answering.

I think Hart is right about this, but a few things are worth noting:

It is indeed true that I have criticized Donald Trump more than Hillary Clinton here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home and in other public writings.  I plead guilty.  But I hope Darryl and others will show some empathy for my explanation.

First, I pick on Trump because many of my readers are evangelicals, I myself still identify as evangelical (although it is getting harder every day), and I study American evangelicalism. Sometimes I write in an attempt to understand why so many of my fellow evangelicals are flocking to Trump.   Sometimes I write in an attempt to challenge my fellow evangelicals to think more deeply, perhaps more Christianly, about their support of Trump.  I am very interested in evangelicals and politics–past and present.  When massive numbers of evangelicals start supporting Hillary Clinton I will write about it.

Second, as a historian I have some serious issues with the Trump campaign. (I also have issues with the Clinton campaign, which I referenced here).  It seems to me that Trump’s campaign is built upon an appeal to the past.  He wants to “Make America Great AGAIN.” Such a campaign slogan invites historical reflection.  Clinton’s campaign also operates within a historical narrative.  It is basically the same progressive view of history Barack Obama has been teaching us over the course of the last four years.  We need to unpack that as well.  (Or at least call attention to it since academic historians have done a pretty good job of unpacking it in virtually everything they write).

But it does seem that conservative candidates (if you can call Trump conservative) are more prone to historical error than progressive candidates.  This is because conservative candidates tend to run on the language of reclamation and restoration.  They are interested in the past as something more than just a thing to overcome.

I thus oppose Trump as an evangelical Christian and as a historian.

As an evangelical Christian I understand why my fellow evangelicals support him.  I empathize with the moral logic behind the endorsements of Trump made by James Dobson, Wayne Grudem or Eric Metaxas.  It makes sense to me.  I just don’t agree with it or sympathize with it.

As a historian I think we need to consider what Sam Wineburg has described as the difference between history and historical thinking.  Some of my historian colleagues oppose Trump because they see in him and his candidacy dark traits from the past. Trump is the new Hitler.  Trump is the new George Wallace.  Trump is the new Andrew Jackson. Sometimes these analogies are useful and interesting, and they should definitely continue to be made, but historians must be careful and cautious when comparing people living in a different era with people  living today.  The past is a foreign country.  Any historical analogy will be imperfect.  As a historian I am not opposed to Trump because I have special knowledge of the past that can be easily applied, in a comparative fashion, to 2016 presidential politics.

But having said that, let’s remember that historians think about the world in a way that should lead them to consider Trump’s candidacy reprehensible. Historians make evidenced-based arguments, they realize the complexity of human life, they are aware of the limited nature of historical knowledge, and, yes, they practice empathy.  As a historian, I oppose Trump because he uses his platform to strengthen the idea that historical thinking–the kind of mental work that we spend our lives defending because they believe it is good for American civil society and democracy–is irrelevant.

So back to Trump and empathy.  Yes, let’s try to understand the historical and cultural factors that prompt people to support him.  Darryl Hart may or may not be happy to know that I have two good books on my nightstand right now.  They are J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America.  I should also add that nearly all of my extended family–parents and siblings-are voting for Trump.  I get it. Maybe, like Vance, I need to write a bit more about my own background.

Is History Hot?

Anxious-Bench-squareOver at The Anxious Bench, Chris Gehrz responds to Jason Steinhauer‘s recent piece for Inside Higher Ed about how history can contribute to public life.

Here is a taste of Gehrz’s piece:

I’m glad that more and more of us seem to take an interest in helping the public to think historically about the past. (All the more so when one alternative is a politician encouraging frightened voters to think nostalgically about the past.) This is no accident: in many corners of the guild, we’ve received encouragement to move out of our comfort zones and use new and old media to communicate with wider audiences.

Indeed, Steinhauer has elsewhere urged at least some historians to take on the role of “history communicators” and

advocate for policy decisions informed by historical research; step beyond the walls of universities and institutions and participate in public debates; author opinion pieces; engage in conversation with policymakers and the public; and work diligently to communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal across print, video, and audio. Most important, History Communicators will stand up for history against simplification, misinformation, or attack and explain basic historical concepts that we in the profession take for granted.

Indeed, blogs like The Anxious Bench have sprung up in large part because more and more historians want to “communicate history in a populist tone that has mass appeal….” As many of us continue to wrestle with Alan Jacobs’ widely-discussed Harper’s essay, “The Watchmen,” I’d point to AB colleagues like Philip Jenkins, Tommy Kidd, and John Fea as sustaining a (vanishing?) tradition of “serious Christian intellectuals who occupied a prominent place on the national stage.”

At the same time, I also think it’s important that historians and other Christian intellectuals continue to take up what Tracy McKenzie has called our “vocation to the church.” In my Trump post, I quoted John Hope Franklin’s famous claim that historians can serve as “the conscience of his nation, if honesty and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.” By the same token, I think Christian historians might sometimes serve as the “conscience of the church,” helping fellow believers to confess and learn from those moments when we fall short of our calling as the Body of Christ. For example, Justin Taylor has been doing a nice job of this at the new Gospel Coalition history blog he shares with Kidd, writing multiple posts on racism and segregation in the history of evangelicalism and fundamentalism.

A lot of good stuff here.  Read the entire piece.

And Gerhz is right when he says that some of us “continue to wrestle” with Alan Jacobs’s Harper‘s essay “The Watchmen.”  I hope to get some posts up on the Jacobs piece soon.  Stay tuned.

The Conscience of the Nation

Many of you have already seen George Stephanopolous’s recent interview with Donald Trump about the Khan family.  Watch it here:

A lot has been said about this video.  I don’t want to rehash all of those issues.  But, as many of you know, I have been making an argument against Trump based on his failure to embrace some of the very basics of historical thinking.  I am not saying that Trump or any political candidate should be professional historians (although it wouldn’t hurt).  I am, however, trying to use Trump’s popularity to call attention to the contribution that historical thinking (and, for that matter, other types of critical thinking) might make to our democracy.

With that in mind, I want to call attention to one of the more controversial parts of Trump’s remarks.  Trump suggests that Ghazala Khan did not speak at the DNC because “she wasn’t allowed to have anything to say.”  The implication here is that Ghazala Khan’s Muslim faith and its view of women had something to do with her silence.  I am not an expert on Islam, so I don’t know if Trump is right about this.  I do know that Khizr Khan has said on multiple occasions that Ghazala did not speak at the DNC because of her grief. And Ghazala Khan turned to the op-ed page of The Washington Post to explain this.

Trump claimed that his view on Ghazala Khan’s silence was probably correct because “plenty of people have written that” and “a lot of people have said that.”  I don’t expect Trump to cite his sources in an interview, but I also don’t want my president making public statements to national audiences about the parents of war heroes based on the notion that “a lot of people have said that.”  This reveals Trump’s inability to keep his mouth shut until he has some assemblage of facts about a particular issue.  When my POTUS speaks I want his or her arguments to be based on solid evidence.  The last time I checked, historians were in the business of making arguments based on evidence.  Again, you don’t have to be a historian to make statements based on solid evidence, but historians tend to do it better than most.

And then there is this:

In this clip Trump claims that there is a video of United States authorities transferring cash to Iran.  Trump does not just mention the video in passing, but he builds an entire argument about Barack Obama’s foreign policy on what he claimed he saw in this video. Trump claims that the tape was released by Iran for the purpose of embarrassing the United States.

The video Trump is referring to does not exist.  Trump was making it all up.  He used this blatant lie about something that happened in the recent past to stir up his supporters and win votes.

Hillary Clinton is also having her problems on this front.  It’s time to stop the Jedi mind-tricks.

This is why I get fired up about bad history.  This, for example, is why I wrote a six-part review of Eric Metaxas’s book If You Can Keep It.  I am not suggesting that Metaxas set out to tell blatant lies about the past, and his errors are certainly not as egregious as Trump’s, but I do think that much of his argument is based on a misunderstanding of historical facts. The claims of his book are built on a very weak foundation. They are not just cosmetic errors, they are historical errors that affect the entire structure and message of the book.

I know its easy to dismiss historians as idealistic ivory tower-dwellers with too much time on their hands.  I get this criticism a lot, but I have never accepted.it.  Perhaps the late historian of the African-American experience John Hope Franklin put it best when he said: “One might argue the historian is the conscience of the nation,if honest and consistency are factors that nurture the conscience.”

Tweets from 2016 RNC

I posted some tweets from day 1 here.

Below I have embedded some  tweets from days 2-4

Follow @johnfea1

“I Alone Can Fix It”: Some Historical Perspective

Trump can fix it

Some of you may remember our interview with Yoni Appelbaum on episode 3 of The Way of Improvement Leads Home podcast.  Appelbaum is the Washington Bureau Chief for The Atlantic.  He also has a Ph.D in American history from Brandeis University.

Today at The Atlantic, Appelbaum applies some good historical thinking and context to Donald Trump’s claim that he “alone” can “fix” this country.

Here is a taste:

Has any American political leader claimed so directly to embody the nation, to speak for it, to be its sole hope for redemption?

In 1968, Richard Nixon spoke of a nation torn apart by crime at home, and by wars abroad. But, he promised, better days were ahead. “Without God’s help and your help, we will surely fail; but with God’s help and your help, we shall surely succeed.”

In 1980, Ronald Reagan painted a similarly dark picture of a troubled nation, and offered a similar message of redemption. But his acceptance speech called on Americans to work together to solve their problems. “I ask you not simply to ‘Trust me,’” Reagan said, “but to trust your values—our values—and to hold me responsible for living up to them.”

In 2000, George W. Bush called a troubled nation to renewal, and ended with a note of humility. “I know the presidency is an office that turns pride into prayer,” he said, “But I am eager to start on the work ahead.”

In 2016, Donald J. Trump mounted the stage, and told America that the nation is in crisis. That attacks on police and terrorism threaten the American way of life. That the United States suffers from domestic disaster, and international humiliation. That it is full of shuttered factories and crushed communities. That it is beset by “poverty and violence at home” and “war and destruction abroad.”

And he offered them a solution.

I am your voice, said Trump. I alone can fix it. I will restore law and order. He did not appeal to prayer, or to God. He did not ask Americans to measure him against their values, or to hold him responsible for living up to them. He did not ask for their help. He asked them to place their faith in him.

He broke with two centuries of American political tradition, in which candidates for office—and above all, for the nation’s highest office—acknowledge their fallibility and limitations, asking for the help of their fellow Americans, and of God, to accomplish what they cannot do on their own.

Read the rest here.

Historians Must Counter the Jedi Mind Tricks

Hillary Congress

Historians are not merely fact-checkers. We try to encourage kids to get excited about doing history by telling them that it is more than just the memorization of names and dates. History, of course, is an act of interpretation.

But in this political cycle, historians need to be getting back to basics as they speak to public to and write for public audiences.  We need to remind people that a proper reconstruction of the past requires, first and foremost, that we do our best to find out what happened in the past. At the most fundamental level historians are truth-tellers. We are not the only thinkers in society who care about the truth, but finding out what happened is a pretty important part of our job description.

Historians will ultimately be the ones who will explain this crazy election cycle to future generations. But it is going to take some time before we gain enough perspective to interpret it fairly.

As we wait for perspective we can still remind the public about the importance of empirical facts. Historians make arguments based on evidence. Our POTUS candidates and those who follow them still need to learn a lesson that they should have learned in their 5th-grade history class.

Please WATCH THIS VIDEO featuring CNN anchor Jake Tapper. (Can’t seem to embed it). Historians have a responsibility to counter the “Jedi mind tricks.”

More Historians on “Historians Against Trump”

HistoryTrumpThe debate over whether historians should sign a letter opposing Donald Trump’s POTUS candidacy has received a lot of attention.  (See our coverage here).

A few of these conversations took place yesterday on my Facebook page.  I asked some of the historians who wrote on my page for permission to publish their thoughts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.

John Haas, Bethel College (IN):

Back in the 1920s and ’30s sociologist William F. Ogburn was on the war path trying to discredit the notion that social scientists should be engaged with the present at all in their professional work. His strongest argument, it seems to me (if I recall correctly) was that taking stands on contemporary controversies would politicize their work, and ruin their reputations as objective scientists generally.

The problem, to get back to your specific question, is that in a democratic society history will be used to justify numerous courses of action to the people, and it’s the “lessons of the past” that the people are interested in. Politicians and pundits will generate and disseminate them, using them for their purposes, even if we won’t.

We can sit back and say, “Well, it’s far more complicated than that,” or “The discontinuities with the past outweigh continuities, rendering those ‘lessons’ dubious,” or just, “Read my book,” but the people have no patience for that. And who can blame them? The enlightenment dream of an educated and virtuous republic never imagined that the attainment of reliable knowledge upon which policies would then be constructed would be such a difficult, immense, contentious and ambiguous task. It takes years of full-time devoted study even to a corner of the field before you really start to know anything. The public can’t do that, and without doing it, they have a very hard time judging among contending voices.

If historians drop into the political realm, they run the danger of being dismissed as mere partisans. (Andrew Bacevich is a great example–theologically and politically conservative, his reputation among his fellow conservatives was trashed when he came out for Obama in 2008. The intense tribal-loyalty dynamics of contemporary politics makes this almost unavoidable.) But, on the other hand, if historians won’t speak up, others will, spinning out “lessons of the past” to suit their agendas, and the people, hearing no other voices, will begin absorbing those “lessons.”

It’s not particularly helpful to say so, but never mind: When we do this–if we do it–it needs to be done really well. Put simply, too many historians sound like any other partisans when they’re weighing in on political issues. I believe we need to stick to our guns: Use a scientific, positivist literary style–unemotional, grounded in facts (especially statistics), etc.–and simply hammer the conclusion in place. Jettison adjectives. Kill anything that even shows the promise of becoming a darling. Be as careful in formulating “lessons” as in determining matters of mundane fact. Practice, in other words, the virtues of professional restraint.

I’m not, to be honest, convinced we’re up to the task. But I think there’s no alternative. The stakes are too high.

Katy McDaniel, Marietta College (OH):

This is a great exchange. To my way of thinking, historians should not *routinely* publicly comment on specific political candidates in a campaign season in this fashion. However, there are times, there are times. And in these times, I think we historians bear the responsibility of informed commentary, of recognition and identification of dangerous demagoguery, even in such a direct manner: that’s a part of our jobs as historians in a democratic society. Otherwise, our silence makes us complicit in what would surely prove to be a disastrous shift in our country, perhaps even away from democracy. This is not hubris; it is responsibility.

Bill Kerrigan, Muskingum College (OH)

I find this whole argument that historians, as historians, “should not” publicly express their views on national politics bizarre. The implicit assumption is that voters need to be protected from such speech because they might be unable to assess the validity of the arguments the historians are making. But of course we know that voters reject arguments and evidence presented all the time. Sometimes for sound reasons, sometimes because they are simply not open to considering perspectives that challenge their already firm beliefs. Fish’s argument, it seems to me is really just another variant on the one that tries to silence a celebrity, for example, for expressing a view on politics, on the grounds that their profession does not qualify them to have any particular insight. Collectively, these types of arguments are harmful because they discourage people from all walks of life from being engaged in the public square. They encourage political apathy, and are I believe, a threat to democracy. Let a group of historians present their view as historians. Let dissenting historians present their own counterviews. Let soap opera stars, and minimum wage workers, and plumbers, and housepainters, and hedge fund managers all publicly present their views. Surely each comes to the table with a distinct perspective that can contribute to the debate. And trust ordinary citizens to listen and read them all, hopefully with a critical but open mind. Let’s stop telling people, or groups of people, that publicly expressing political concerns is a form of hubris. It is fundamentally an anti-intellectual, anti-democratic argument to make.

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

Make AmericaChris Gerhz, aka “The Pietist Schoolman,” a history professor at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, was another signer of the “Historians Against Trump” letter.

Here is a taste of recent post:

I’m not naive enough to believe – as Fish reads out of the letter — “that historians, because of their training, are uniquely objective observers.” As the authors acknowledge early on, we historians (like anyone else) cannot fully escape “our own limitations and subjectivity.” But we do seek after truth as objectively as possible — not uniquely (most academic disciplines would affirm this objective), but distinctively (in accordance with the particularities of our discipline — e.g., grounding any historical truth-claim in a reasonable interpretation of available historical evidence. It’s why I’m more bothered than other Trump opponents by Hillary Clinton’s use of private email while serving as secretary of state, which was not only careless but made more difficult the work of those of us who benefit from the transparency of well-kept public records.)

I’m also not naive enough to believe that we should expect political candidates to be unfailingly honest. According to the nonpartisan, Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checkers at Politifact, the other major party’s presumptive nominee has made “True” or “Mostly True” statements only 51% of the time. That’s a higher percentage than the equivalent numbers for the current presidentvice president, and all four majorcongressional leaders.

It’s also nearly five times as high as the same number for Donald Trump.

Not just historians, but anyone else whose profession places any value on truth-telling, should be bothered by a supposedly candid non-politician’s casual disregard for reality. But it’s especially worrisome for historians because the central theme of Trump’s campaign is an ahistorical claim about the past: that America was once great and can easily be made so again. Harshly, but not unfairly, the open letter’s authors describe Trump’s campaign as one of violence — against “individuals and groups” (more on that in a moment), but also “against memory and accountability; against historical analysis and fact.”

Read the entire piece here.

Why Historians Should Consider Facebook and Twitter

Every now and then a post like this appears somewhere on-line.  Here are a few examples:

All of these posts (and others like them) provide very solid reasons for why academic and professional historians should use Facebook and Twitter.  I recommend reading them whenever they appear.
But let me offer a slightly different perspective.
When academic historians write and talk about using social media the conversation is always limited by the boundaries of the profession.  Social media can help historians network.  Social media can help historians share their work.  Social media can help historians share resources (usually in the form of links) with other historians.  All of this assumes that the people we follow or “friend,” and the people who follow and friend us, are all academic or professional historians.
My approach to social media has been different in the sense that I have not separated my professional life from certain aspects of my personal life.  Yes, there should be boundaries between the two and I have tried to keep them.  But people who follow me on Facebook or Twitter will also have to deal with the occasional (or not so occasional) photo of my family, a post on the New York Mets, or the latest fan-boy commentary on Bruce Springsteen.  I tend to approach life in an integrated fashion–perhaps to a fault.
The people who follow me on social media are very diverse.  I have conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, evangelical Christians and atheists, academics and aunts and uncles, Mets fans and Yankee fans, and everyone in-between.  I like it this way.  
Sometimes we argue on Facebook or Twitter. Sometimes my liberal friends are shocked by the comments that appear on my feed.  Sometimes my conservative friends feel the same way. I prefer such diversity over the posts I read on many Facebook or Twitter accounts where all of those contributing to the conversation are of one ideological bent.  
Are you on social media?  How diverse is your following or list of “friends?”  Or do you find yourself preaching to the choir with every post or tweet?  
OK–back to historians.  As someone who wants to write for public audiences through blogging and other popular outlets, I love social media because I get to see what a diverse group of people are thinking about and how they are responding to the ever-changing world around them. The conversations that happen on social media–either on my sites or the sites of others–fuel my writing and provide me with ideas.   Sometimes it is less about posting and more about sitting back and reading the posts of others.
So join the conversation at Facebook or @johnfea1. Or perhaps open a Twitter or Facebook account of your own.

One more thing:  Those of us trying to provide bring solid content to social media outlets always prefer “retweets” over “favorites” on Twitter and “shares” to “likes” on Facebook

Being A Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public

Julian Zelizer, Princeton University

On Saturday afternoon I attended a session at AHA 2015 entitled “Being a Public Intellectual: Historians and the Public.”  There were some high-powered historians on this panel, including Peniel Joseph, Claire Potter, Julian Zelizer, Eric Foner, and Michael Kazin.  The place was packed–standing room only.

I live tweeted the session @johnfea1 and Storified the session here.

I thoroughly enjoyed this session–even found it inspiring.

In the end, the members of the panel seemed to have differing views on what the role and responsibilities of a “public intellectual.”  Peniel Joseph and Claire Potter were clearly historian-activists.  Zelizer called himself more of a “commentator” than an “activist.” (Joseph insisted that we can do both–comment and act). Foner approached his role as a public intellectual from a more traditional historical perspective. He believed that good scholarship could lead to social change.  Kazin seemed to be somewhere between Joseph/Potter and Foner.

Check out the tweets for more.

Michael Limberg on Historians and War at the 2015 AHA

Michael Limberg checks back in.  Here is what he was up to on Saturday afternoon at the 2015 AHA–JF
The panel I attended this afternoon was likely the most emotionally intense and fraught panel I can remember witnessing.  This is perhaps understandable, as this was the session sponsored by MARHO (The Radical Historians’ Organization) and Historians Against War (HAW) titled “What is the Responsibility of Historians Regarding the Palestine/Israel Conflict?”  It was a packed room; most of the attendees seemed to be affiliated with HAW but there were a scattering of unaffiliated others like myself.  HAW has introduced several resolutions for tomorrow’s AHA business meeting that would criticize the state of Israel for suppressing the academic freedom of Palestinian intellectuals.  They hope to get these resolutions approved for general discussion and a vote by all AHA members.  
The presenters (Leena Dallasheh, Linda Gordon, Joel Beinin, and Barbara Weinstein) introduced several different positions on both why and how a professional organization such as the AHA or historians individually should take a moral and political stance on these issues.  Several other academic organizations, including the Modern Language Association (MLA) and Middle Eastern Studies Association (MESA) have recently attempted to discuss similar resolutions or even debated the possibility of a “cultural boycott” of Israel as part of a Boycott, Divest, andSanction movement.
Their discussions have generated substantial contention and criticism both from within their organizations and in the wider media.  The session today also rankled a number of attendees.  Some who disagreed with the premise that Israel deserves to be criticized and others disagreed that historians in general (particularly non-Middle East specialists) had any special or professional obligation to act.  Tempers flared a little in the audience comments period, though everyone managed to keep it civil. 
While this particular debate might not be on the radar for many readers of this blog, I was fascinated to see the range of opinions expressed at this session about the role of historians as public intellectuals, informed citizens, and teachers.  Like some others at this session, I am hesitant to say an academic organization dedicated to such a wide umbrella of scholarly exchange and professional development is the best place to mount a political critique.  On the other hand, I am also committed to teaching my students that their historical skills (gathering and analyzing evidence, contextualizing, challenging accepted wisdom) can be used to understand and shape their actions for the political and ethical challenges they face today. 
I  also thought of discussions over the last few years in the Conference on Faith and History, of which I am also a member, on the relationships and responsibilities of scholars to their churches and the religious public.  I left the session today with even more questions about professional responsibility than I had when I entered, but it was a very valuable experience.  I’m curious to hear what comes of the measures proposed at the business meeting.
Otherwise, my conference swag count to date includes: three free books, two free pens, innumerable handouts and lists of available publications, several bookmarks, and a goodly supply of crackers and cheese (which totally counts as swag if you’re a grad student trained to seek out free food at any opportunity).  I also took the chance to wander a little in the rain tonight to see a bit of New York City.  My current home in rural Connecticut is just down the road from cornfields and cows, so taking in Times Square and the hustle and bustle of a weekend evening in Manhattan was a good adventure.  
On Sunday I’m looking forward to the Conference on Faith and History breakfast and a couple of religious history panels, one on Kate Bowler’s work on the Prosperity Gospel and another in the afternoon on American Evangelicals Abroad.

Jonathan Zimmerman on Historians and Their Publics

Jonathan Zimmerman

I just received my copy of the most recent The American Historian, a new American history magazine published by the Organization of American Historians.  There are a lot of great articles in this episode and I just might blog on a few of them in the immediate future.  But for now, I want to call your attention to Jonathan Zimmerman‘s article “Historians and Their Publics.”

Zimmerman teaches history at New York University and is best known for writing op-ed pieces that connect history to current events.  (His book Small Wonder: The Little Red School House in History and Memory is also really good).  I greatly admire Zimmerman’s attempts to bring history to public audiences.

In his The American Historian article Zimmerman makes some great points about why it is necessary and beneficial for historians to write for the public.  He argues that this kind of writing not only informs the public, but also has the potential of making us better historians.  Here are a few of Zimmerman’s ideas:

  • Graduate students need to learn to write for the public as a means of survival.  Academic jobs in history departments are drying up.
  • Everyone who writes an M.A. or Ph.D thesis should be required to produce “a piece of work about their projects for public audiences.”  Zimmerman suggests op-ed pieces, a blog posts, TED talks, and videos.
  • Writing for the public allows historians to “distill and clarify” the “central intellectual claims” of their scholarship.
  • Every graduate student of history should get training in how to teach.  Graduate students need to connect with a growing scholarship in the history of teaching and learning.
  • History teachers must be generalists.  As a result, they should feel comfortable writing op-eds and blog posts on topics that they have never researched.  As Zimmerman puts it: “I’m always amused (and, I’ll admit, a little appalled) when I hear a historian disparage colleagues for writing op-eds or blog posts on topics they have never researched on their own….In our classrooms, after all, we routinely teach about many matters far beyond our academic specialties.  Why should writing be any different.”
  • Founders of the historical profession such as Carl Becker and Charles and Mary Beard took it for granted that historians should be public intellectuals.
Great stuff. 

Making Your Academic Monograph Accessible to the Public

Over at Public History Commons, Charlotte Mires writes about the limitations of her first book–Independence Hall in American Memory

With that book, first published in 2002, I achieved tenure and promotion, and I was pleased to generate some new conversation about the long history of a landmark most commonly associated with the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. But while the monograph opened some doors (and perhaps some minds), it also carried with it some inherent limitations.
Ironically enough for a book dealing with public history, it was going to be difficult for the public to gain access to the work. Part of this was simply the price of the hardcover book, which started at $34.95 but escalated over time to $47.50. And ironically enough for a book about a structure, the architecture of the monograph itself presented challenges for some readers. While my introduction delved into scholarly literature and proposed a model for understanding the role of buildings in constructing public memory, readers or onsite interpreters looking for good stories needed to jump ahead to find them. Even the best stories appeared briefly in the book, while the very rich documents behind them remained stored away in my files.
Yes, yes yes!  Mires has put into words something I have been thinking about for a long time.  My first monograph, The Way of Improvement Leads Home: Philip Vickers Fithian and the Rural Enlightenment in Early America (also published with the University of Pennsylvania Press) is filled with stories and even some narrative, but some non-academic readers have complained about the academic jargon and theory in a few parts of the book.  While the book has had a cross-over appeal (due mostly to my non-academic talks), I often wonder if I should have just written the book for the general history buff so I could really play with the narrative and bring Fithian’s diaries to life.  But in the end, I know I made the right decision.  I needed this book to establish myself as an early American historian.  I coined phrases such “cosmopolitan rootedness” and “rural Enlightenment” that were important to my ongoing respectability as a scholar.
The Way of Improvement Leads Home appeared in paperback about a year after the original hardback was published, so I was able to pitch a much more affordable book ($18.96 today at Amazon!) to public audiences, but after this experience I wondered, and still wonder, if I want to write another university press monograph that no one is going to read because of price.  I am not opposed to publishing again with a university press, but I wonder if price point can be part of a contract negotiation.  (Has anyone negotiated this way?).
Though the hardback version of Independence Hall in American Memory may still be overpriced, the new paperback version is not ($22.46 today at Amazon!).  And Mires has thought of some creative ways to reach those who were not exposed to the book when it was released in hardback in 2002. Along these lines, she has created a companion website for the book complete with teaching guides, documents, more illustrations, and additional content.  What a great idea.
Here is a taste of Mires’s post:
Fast-forward to 2014. Independence Hall in American Memory is finally available in paperback with a companion website (http://independencehall-americanmemory.com) to make the work more accessible for teachers, interpreters, and the public. Websites are of course much easier to build today than they were at the time when my book was first published. I had help from Stephanie Brown at the University of Pennsylvania Press, who created the WordPress website, and then I populated it with all those things that I wished had been more accessible all along. First I consulted with two of the ranger interpreters at Independence National Historical Park, Renee Albertoli and Bill Caughlan, to ask what they would most like to see. From them came the suggestions for highlighting the fugitive slave hearings that took place in Independence Hall in the 1850s, for providing information about protests and demonstrations in and around the building, and for a timeline for ready reference. Along with this valuable advice, Christian Higgins and Andrea Ashby at the park’s Library and Archives offered their partnership in helping to locate and provide illustrations.
I wrote two teaching guides for publication on the website–one specifically for public history teaching and professional development and the other for US history courses. Similar to the teaching companions often available with textbooks, these include chapter summaries, discussion questions, and active-learning activities for classes or staff development workshops. The website also has allowed me to extend beyond the original content of the book.  For example, it hosts a step-by-step case study of the President’s House site in Philadelphia, which after the book’s publication became a matter of controversy related to the presence of slavery in George Washington’s household. Throughout the website are links to documents, many of them transcribed from my research files.
The site is and will remain a work in progress, especially in the documents section (and I welcome suggestions as to what would be most useful). But I am confident enough in this approach that I am beginning to do the same with the companion site for my more recent book, Capital of the World: The Race to Host the United NationsIt’s an indication of the changing nature of publishing that this book had a website from the start (http://capital-of-the-world.com), built in WordPress by Jodi Narde at NYU Press and then turned over to me for management. It began as a blog, which I kept up for about the first year after publication, but it is now evolving into a site with teaching guides and documents. (If you’d like to see if your hometown was in the running to become the Capital of the World in 1945-46, also check out the surprising list of contenders.) Like the Independence Hall site, I hope this will add public value to the work, in this case to spur conversation about place-making and intersections of local and global identities.
Perhaps websites such as these are one approach to building bridges between the expectations of the academy and our commitments as public historians. I welcome suggestions for ways to continue to make this work useful to teaching, training, and practice in public history.

Schoenbachler: "Bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with the public."

Matt Schoenbachler

On Sunday, in my weekly “Sunday Night Odds and Ends” post, I linked to Professor Patricia Limerick’s response to Nicholas Kristof’s February 2015 New York Times column, “Professors, We Need You!”  If you read this blog, you know that I have done several posts on the topic.  (You can read them here and here and here ).  In the end I argued, contra to most of my colleagues in academia, that when Kristof’s chides academics for staying in their ivory towers, writing jargon-filled prose, and not engaging more fully with public audiences, he is basically correct.

Limerick, the incoming president of the Organization of American Historians, used her inaugural column to rally American historians to show Kristof just how much he is wrong about academics on this front.  Here is a taste of her column:
Kristof…labors—and writes—in darkness when it comes to a grounded knowledge of the everyday lives of hundreds of historians working in multiple institutions, locales, and enterprises.
I need to hear from historians employed at universities and colleges who travel back and forth across the borders of the academic world…
If you are a historian based in academia and also engaged in the world beyond the borders of your campus, please write me. Tell me who you are, what your field is, what you teach, what you write about, and what sort of activity—working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.—you engage in outside your university or college. If you involve your students in these enterprises, all the better—please let me know about how you may have, for instance, hitched up the writing and research assignments in your class to the public benefit…
“I write this in sorrow,” Kristof ended his column, “for I considered an academic career and deeply admire the wisdom found on university campuses.”
We now have the opportunity to relieve his “sorrow” and to deepen his admiration for “the wisdom found on”—and actually transported and distributed far from—”university campuses.”
Matthew G. Schoenbachler, a Professor of History at the University of North Alabama and a reader of The Way of Improvement Leads Home, saw the link to Limerick’s column and asked me if he could respond.  Rather than include his remarks in the comments section below, I thought his message deserved a post of its own because I think he is on the mark here:

I appreciate what Professor Limerick is trying to do in her call for American historians to send her examples of historians engaging people outside the classroom. In responding to critics such as Nicholas Kristof who contend that that most academic work is irrelevant, she rightly asserts that historians engage the public far more than most people know, “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”

Doubtlessly, thousands of professional historians could give abundant examples of all or most of the above. But when and if Limerick tabulates their responses, her project will signify little or nothing. For the problem is not that historians don’t reach out to the public—the problem is that such effort is essentially pro bono—the entire academic system of incentives and rewards militates against such activities. The fact that such endeavors go on at all warms my one-point Calvinist heart (total depravity in case you’re wondering).  

Ask yourself: How many historians are awarded tenure, promoted, or find employment at a more prestigious university by “working with K–12 teachers, giving public lectures, participating in the design of museum exhibits, advising nonprofits, talking to reporters, writing op-ed pieces or blogs, etc.”?

Exactly none.

In a sense, Limerick’s project resembles the conservative contention that massive inequities in wealth distribution can be alleviated through charity rather than the imposition of progressive taxation (yes, I realize I just made a completely implausible analogy between historians and the wealthy, but bear with me). At issue is not the individuals in the system or their character; it is the system itself. And bone-deep within the academic culture are imperatives that conspire against engagement with public and ten thousand testimonials to the essential decency of most professional historians will change nothing. 

We should be far less concerned with giving “aid, comfort, and affirmation to our critics” and far more concerned with advocating the creation of institutional means that will encourage and reward professional historians’ engagement with the public.
Thanks, Mark.  It may be time for some serious reform.  

Feel free to fire-away in the comment section below.

A Few Thoughts on OAH Panel "Is Blogging Scholarship?"

I thoroughly enjoyed sitting on a panel with Jeff Pasley, Anne Little, Michael O’Malley, Ben Alpers, and Ken Owen this morning to talk about historians and blogging.  You can read Michael Hattem’s storification of the tweets from the session here.

Ann Little of Historiann fame got us off to a solid start.  Since she posted her comments before the session, a a few members of the panel (myself included) used part of their brief remarks to respond to Ann.  Is blogging scholarship?  Ann answered the question in the negative.  She could not get around the idea that the things we write on blogs cannot be subjected to peer review and thus could not formally be called scholarship.  Everything else she said about blogging was extremely positive.  She encouraged scholars to try to make a case for blogging as scholarship (although she warned pre-tenured faculty from doing so) and extolled the value of blogging for professional development and the development of writing habits. In the end, Historiann was a realist.  She was just not convinced that departments will accept blogging as scholarship when it comes to tenure and promotion.  She is largely correct.
I was up next.  I began with Ernest Boyer’s 1990 essay Scholarship Reconsidered.  Boyer seeks to expand the idea of scholarship to include the scholarship of discovery (traditional research in books and articles), the scholarship of integration (synthetic work), the scholarship of application (bringing historical thinking skills and knowledge to the public), and the scholarship of teaching.  I argued that all four of these types of scholarship can be accomplished on a blog, but especially the scholarship of integration, application, and teaching.  I said that schools like Messiah College and others that have adopted Boyer’s categories might consider blogging as “scholarship.”
Michael O’Malley said that blogging is a form of scholarship, or at least is should be.  Blogging has the potential to be a venue that integrates the glowing personal reflections of a book’s “acknowledgements” page(s) with the detached scholarly analysis found in the rest of the book.  Scholars are in the business of “making meaning” and blogging is a way for historians to share their personal struggles to make meaning out of the past.
Ben Alpers has done a lot of thinking about blogging.  He challenged the panel and the audience to separate “scholarship” from considerations related to promotion and tenure.  Scholarship does not have to be connected to peer review or the demands placed upon academics at their home institutions. He offered several advantages to blogging: speed, dissemination, inter-activity, flexibility, and hypertextuality.  Blogging also has its disadvantages: speed is not always good when doing historical research, blogging demands constant content, blogging is informal (it does not feel “scholarly” and when it tries to be “scholarly” it does not feel like blogging), blog posts are short.  He also reminded us that blog posts are always “works in progress,” but they are also published.
Finally, Ken Owen talked about his experience at The Junto and his attempts to get his work at the blog to count toward his tenure at a school that values the Ernest Boyer model of scholarship.  
During the Q&A session several non-academic historians pushed the panel to see blogging as a way of engaging the public outside of the academy.  Several panelists and audience members rejected the idea that there should be AHA guidelines about what constitutes good blogging.  In a discussion about how to convince history departments that blogging was a legitimate form of scholarship, Clare Potter, a.k.a. “Tenured Radical,” said that bloggers need to convince their departments that “not everything on a computer is the same.”  
Thanks to Rosemarie Zagarri for bringing this panel together and Jeff Pasley for chairing it.  There was so much more I could have said about blogging (it has been a part of my life for over five years now), but I encourage you to keep reading The Way of Improvement Leads Home to get a better sense of what we are doing here.
With that, I think my OAH 2014 blogging and tweeting has come to an end.  Thanks for following this weekend.  

Storify: Is Blogging Scholarship?

Thanks so much to Michael Hattem of Yale for Storifyng our OAH session “Is Blogging Scholarship?” I will work on a post on the session soon.  It was a great session and was well attended despite its late Sunday morning time slot.   The “Story” is below.

Riffing on a Few Tweets From the "Historians and Their Publics" Plenary Session

Salon D was packed out yesterday afternoon for the plenary session of the Organization of American Historians: “Historians and Their Publics.”  OAH president Alan Kraut moderated a session that included  Spencer Crew, Sean Wilentz, Jill Lepore, and Shola Lynch.  Rather than write a report of the panel, I thought I would use a few of my tweets to frame some thoughts.  Here goes:

TWEET: “Live tweeting plenary session ‘Historians and Their Publics.’ Kristof op-ed framing the discussion so far.”
As might be expected, Kristof’s New York Times op-ed “Professors, We Need You” was on everyone’s mind. Kraut used the piece to frame the conversation. I am on record saying that Kristof’s piece is on the mark, but I would really like to know what Lepore thought about it. (She is mentioned in the piece as someone who is connecting with public audiences). At one point during the session she said that scholars have retreated into the ivory tower, suggesting that she might believe that Kristof has identified a problem.

TWEET: “Lepore sees her writing as extension of her teaching. Developing students in skills of historcial thinking.”
Wilentz also affirmed this. I am not sure how often Lepore and Wilentz teach, but those scholars in the proverbial “trenches” who teach 4-4 loads (or more) are our most important public historians. K-12 teachers as well.

TWEET: “Lepore: So many historians think that to do public history is to somehow to engage in politics. More to this than just punditry”
This led to an interesting conversation. Lepore tried to separate what she does in The New Yorker and elsewhere from political punditry (although a lot of her public writing has an obvious political edge). Wilentz saw no need to do so. As someone who writes the occasional op-ed or politically-charged blog post, I often struggle with this issue. Do I have to take off my “historian” hat and put on my “pundit” hat whenever I write an op-ed piece? Wilentz admitted that there was a fundamental difference between writing scholarly essays/books and writing opinion pieces, but he did not think the difference was very great. He argued for what might be called a “historically informed punditry.” (This is not unlike what the History News Service has been trying to do).

TWEET: “Wilentz describes old magazines like the New Republic as “gladiatorial.” Extolls these kinds of mags as way to reach the public.”
Wilentz likes to write for the magazines read by America’s educated class. So does Lepore. She extolled the essay as the best way to reach public audiences. While both of these excellent public scholars reach a much larger audience than most historians (and should be commended for doing so), their understanding of “the public” is very narrow. It struck me that no one in the room acknowledged the assumptions about social class (and I am talking here about “class” as more of a cultural phenomenon than an economic one) that pervaded much of what Lepore and Wilentz had to say. For example, most Americans do not read The New Republic or The New Yorker. The overwhelming majority of the American public might ask “Who is Jill Lepore?” or “Who is Sean Wilentz?” How does one reach people like my Dad–a man without a post-secondary education who gets most of his history from Sean Hannity and Rush Limbaugh? What about the millions of evangelical Christians who get their history from David Barton? Reaching these Americans requires a very different approach to what it means to be a “public intellectual.” Spencer Crew (museum educator) and Shola Lynch (documentary film maker) seemed to have a much more expansive view of “the public.”

TWEET: “Lepore talks about her tea party book. Says she felt a ‘chill’ from the historical profession. She was told it was a waste of time.”
I really liked The Whites of Their Eyes and gave it a lot of attention here at the blog.  I think it is unfortunate that so many historians blasted the book.  It was a great attempt to address the way history is being used (and abused) in the public.  Did Lepore waste her time writing about the Tea Party’s use and abuse of history?  Absolutely not.  The criticism she received by some members of the historical profession reveal an unwillingness to engage with cultural or political movements that are perceived to be anti-intellectual or not worthy of their time.  This is unfortunate.

My critique of The Whites of Their Eyes is different than the criticism offered by others in the historical profession.  Lepore’s book is a good start, but it did very little to help the Tea Party develop a more nuanced interpretation of American history.  I am not sure that many rank and file Tea Partiers read the book (but I could be wrong).  Few of them would listen to a Harvard history professor anyway.  So who did read The Whites of Their Eyes?  I am guessing that the readers of the book were people who already agree with Lepore about the Tea Party’s misuse of history.  It is likely that these readers might use the book for further ammunition in attacking the anti-intellectualism of the Tea Party. 

In other words, Lepore was using her Princeton University Press book to preach to the choir.  Did it really change hearts and minds?  If not, what might it take to do so?  These are the questions we should be asking. Rather than using our “superior” intellectual to savage those who may not see the power of a well-crafted historical argument, we should be thinking about the most effective ways of teaching those outside of our classrooms how to make such an argument.  In the process we might succeed in winning some of them over.